Friday 30 January 2004
Just when one might have imagined every significant early manuscript by Benjamin Britten had been brought to light, here in the Concert Hall of the college itself was the Royal College of Music Sinfonietta, under the young Britten specialist Michael Rosewell, with yet another substantial premiere. Britten was only 17 when he attempted his first stage piece - a ballet entitled Plymouth Town - to a scenario by the folklorist Violet Alford. This tells a tale not without reverberations in later Britten: an innocent young sailor on shore leave is led astray by the lures of drink, sex and violence, returning to his ship a sadder and a wiser man.
The 25-minute score was sketched in a mere 17 days in August 1931, orchestrated later that autumn and submitted to the Camargo Society, pioneering promoters of British ballet. When they failed to take it up, Britten seems to have consigned the manuscript to a bottom drawer. Yet this lively performance not only revealed a strikingly proficient achievement in itself, but an interesting shift in the young composer's musical evolution. Where his pre-RCM music under Frank Bridge's tutelage had advanced steadily towards a Schoenbergian chromaticism, here he suddenly reverted to a clear-cut, "English" modality - either in order to mollify the RCM fogies or because its material is largely derived from the sea shanty "A-Roving".
Fragments of this melody are duly developed over ostinato accompaniments to outline numbers, or piled up in fugal textures to create bustle, only acquiring more chromatic shadings at tenser junctures. The scoring for smallish orchestra is remarkably confident, considering Britten had not at this stage heard a note of his orchestral writing - and would not do so for another five years. The composer to come is only ever hinted at in passing details - the idiom, if anything, more resembles later Holst - but the sweep of its through-composed structure is impressive.
By contrast, the one-movement Oboe Concerto by the 22-year-old Helen Grime, which formed the centrepiece of this concert, was conspicuous for its, presumably deliberate, feeling of stasis. Even during the brief central passage of faster music, it seemed becalmed. The solo line, eloquently delivered by the composer herself, winds through a many-angled trajectory, and is almost ceaselessly lapped in recurrent chordal textures, suggesting the influence of Takemitsu. But, under the sensitive ministrations of the RCM Sinfonietta's regular conductor, Neil Thomson, there could be no question of the distinctiveness of this promising young composer's ear.
After such refinements, the great grinding paragraphs and massively doubled scoring of Vaughan Williams's Symphony No 9 in E minor came with all the ruder a shock. Beyond the familiar cut of the material - the uncouth lumberings of its textures - there remains something uncanny about this testament, as Vaughan Williams (the atheist with yet so powerful a sense of the numinous) unflinchingly contemplates Last Things. Thomson's command over the work's pacing and rhetoric and the touching concentration of its youthful players came into their own. I have never been more moved by a performance of this symphony.
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