City of London Sinfonia, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia provided us with a sneak preview of the newly refurbished Barbican in their tribute to two of this year's centenarians, Gerald Finzi and Edmund Rubbra. The concert hall looked much the same until you raised your eyes to the ceiling, now crammed with shiny new conker-coloured acoustical contraptions. The instant Lennox Berkeley's delightful Serenade struck up one was aware of an immediacy in the sound formerly lacking – plaintive, elegiac and cool by turns, and beautifully written for strings, it made a pleasing prelude to a programme full of lyricism and gentle melancholy. Qualities, along with wistfulness, immediately recognisable as characteristic in Finzi's early Romance for Strings, and the Violin Concerto, recently rescued from early abandonment and championed by the soloist on this occasion, Tasmin Little.

A vigorous opening gesture and busy neoclassical-ish first movement reminded us that Finzi isn't all nostalgic reverie; Little's evident affection for the piece brought forth a performance of great commitment, especially in the heartfelt molto sereno slow movement, with its ravishing harmonics, and enigmatic muted horn conclusion.

The breezy finale contained a tune worthy of Finzi's mentor figure, Vaughan Williams, and brought this small, but perfectly formed early work to a rousing close. Here again, it was noticeable that the solo violin sound came out, warm and vibrant, at the audience – another plus for the acoustics experts.

Edmund Rubbra has had a raw deal in his centenary year in comparison with his friend Finzi. But his is music of great character, with a sort of dispassionate lyrical intensity and a complete lack of nostalgia that must surely owe a lot to Rubbra's religious faith – something that Finzi did not share.

The dark, plangent, modal opening bars of the Symphony No 10 announced the unmistakable Rubbra atmosphere; here, in this very compact piece lasting a mere 15 minutes or so, we had the concentrated essence of the composer's thought processes – all the more powerful for being compressed. Hickox inspired a most cogent and persuasive performance of a symphony that really needs to be heard more often, along with more of this composer's music.

Finally Finzi's masterpiece, the solo cantata "Dies Natalis" was sung in a valiant performance by an even paler than usual Ian Bostridge suffering from a throat infection. Despite the inevitable editing of a number of high notes and the occasional throat wobble this was still a most moving interpretation of this most touching of pieces – one which Bostridge has begun to make his own. Here again the acoustic's new warmth and immediacy came out in the rich string writing: the Barbican's changes are a distinct success.

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