Britten Sinfonia/Little, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Billed as "Tasmin Little directs Bach and Mozart", the Britten Sinfonia's programme was really a showcase for teamwork. The orchestra's leader, Jacqueline Shave, and its principal viola, Martin Outram, who played solo throughout the second half, also had key roles, but everything sprang from focused listening throughout the orchestral string section.

Two performances of Shostakovich by strings alone shared good balance and ensemble. Little proved a dominant solo voice in the Prelude and Scherzo for octet. Fully scored passages held together securely while remaining fleet. With Shave directing, the Chamber Symphony began fuller-toned and stayed forthright. But however wholehearted and polished, it fell short on characterisation.

The work is an arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of Shostakovich's grim String Quartet No 8. It's full of obsessive and desperate references to other pieces of his, originally inspired by a visit to Dresden in 1960 when he came face to face with the results of wartime atrocities. The playing radiated commitment but steered a middle course between the opening's 40-below chill and the scary climaxes later on, and left its audience touched rather than devastated.

Best in this half was the A minor concerto by Bach, done in a 1960s way with the period elements consisting of light tone, a springy pulse, and harpsichord. Little's conducting supported her playing with results that sounded alert and precise.

The second half evinced an extraordinary quality of sharing, as you expect to find in a trio or quartet. John Woolrich's short piece Ulysses Awakes is Monteverdi given a Stravinsky-type treatment, with the viola taking the singer's part and a gradual, subtle invasion of lightly dissonant elements - elusive and poetic in its halting phrases.

Shave led the orchestra here, and again with both Little and Outram at the front for Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. Usually this work feels like a double concerto, but here the lead role passed around, with soloists determined to cooperate rather than compete. All the performers succeeded, not only in placing the work before its public but in drawing listeners into its heart.

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