BBC Festival of Britten, Symphony Hall Birmingham

A celebration of great Britten
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In the opening concert of the BBC's Festival of Britten, marking 25 years since the composer's death, David Pyatt cast a potent spell in the unworldly horn harmonics of the Serenade's Prologue and Epilogue. Philip Langridge's interpretative skills gave much pleasure too, despite his having succumbed to an autumnal cold. The gloriously rich strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales were bathed in the poems' sunset glow.

Frank Bridge's early tone poem "The Sea" was given a hard-driven account, powered by Richard Hickox's missionary zeal. The imaginative score revealed the composer's considerable stature, though this reading never smelt very briny, concentrating instead on orchestral virtuosity. Both here and in Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" and "Passacaglia" from Peter Grimes, the great tutti peaks registered strongly. When not at full blast, the seascapes lacked intensity.

The gargantuan spectacle of Percy Grainger's imaginary ballet The Warriors involved a battery of percussion, three grand pianos and an off-stage brass ensemble, capped by a Hickox touch – a Last Trump entry from Symphony Hall's newly unveiled organ. The indigestible mix of styles included Baxian nostalgia, Straussian richness and a twinkle of Liberace in the jazzy piano writing. It offered the guilty pleasures of a wallow in colossal kitsch after Britten's filigree textures and tasteful sensibility.

The following evening, Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem received a reading of slow burning intensity from Osmo Vänskä and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The steady tempo of the opening "Lacrymosa", more akin to Barbirolli's first performances of the work than the composer's own interpretations, bore fruit in a shuddering climactic outpouring of grief. The sneering tremolandi of the central "Dies Irae" were crisply menacing and the concluding "Requiem Aeternam" made an exalted, cathartic resolution. The performance was finely judged, never turning this powerful expression of personal bereavement into a showy concerto for orchestra.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson was a sensitive and beautifully expressive soloist in Britten's Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings. The outstanding passages were the portent of war ominously underpinned by timpani in Wordsworth's "The Prelude" and the impassioned Mahlerian gestures in the concluding setting of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 43".

It is a shame these were not all-Britten programmes, the debt to his teacher illuminated by a performance of the Frank Bridge Variations, and the Suite on English Folk Tunes making the Grainger connection. The Sinfonia is ample evidence of Mahler's influence without including the latter's Fourth Symphony. Nonetheless, these concerts were a timely reminder of Britten's international standing as a great 20th-century orchestrator and one of the very few composers able to set English texts and leave them not only undiminished but enhanced by memorable invention.

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