What is Englishness in music? The young string players of the Britten Sinfonia don’t pose the question explicitly in their current touring programme, but it’s hovering in the surrounding ether.
Henry Purcell was their starting point: the Overture and Rondeau from his score for ‘Abdelazer’ emerged with that open-hearted generosity which characterises the English Orpheus at his happiest. Then came Michael Tippett’s ‘Little Music’, which was a reminder of the blind alley up which many of his twentieth-century successors got lost. Tippett’s tragedy was that he seldom received a visit from the Muse, and this four-movement work demonstrates all to clearly what he used to fill the gap: strenuously self-conscious craftsmanship, and the appropriation of gestures culled from Stravinsky.
Next came a rarity in the form of ‘Dies Natalis’ Gerald Finzi’s song-cycle on a mystical poem-sequence by Thomas Traherne. Composed in the dark days of 1940, this work is shot through with a lyricism which mirrors the visionary quality of the verse, and in tenor Mark Padmore the Sinfonia have found its ideal exponent. Austere yet intense, Padmore’s sound is extraordinarily distinctive: Finzi’s word-setting may at times be mannered and predictable, but when his music flies, the result is an evanescent beauty which Padmore caught to perfection. No other composer ever wrote like this: Finzi’s musical Englishness is still not treasured as it should be.
With nothing from Britten, it was clear the Sinfonia wanted to push the boundaries, and in the second half they did, with acts of homage to Purcell by John Woolrich which really made one stop and think. If Woolrich’s ‘Another Staircase Overture’ answered Purcell’s ‘Staircase Overture’ with a cod-Purcellian jeu, his settings of Tippett’s arrangements of three of the Elizabethan master’s best-known songs – ably delivered by Padmore - threw out a provocative challenge to the loyal Purcellian listener. With ‘Music for a while’ the accompaniment was mischievously pulled about, and ‘If music be the food of love’ had an infectiously lively momentum.
The send-off was another oddity – William Walton’s string orchestration of one of his own string quartets. No whiff of inspiration disturbed the laborious progress of this forgettable work, but the superb Britten Sinfonia gave it their all, as they did everything else.