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S & H Recital Review

BRITTEN 25th ANNIVERSARY CONCERTS Wigmore Hall 4 & 5 December 2001 Britten String Quartets Belcea Quartet Holderlin Fragments Ian Bostridge/Thomas Ades 4 December Purcell Welcome to all the Pleasures; Dido and Aeneas Handel Concerto Grosso Op.6/9 The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock 5 December (PGW)


Memories of Benjamin Britten were to the forefront in two sold-out concerts at the Wigmore Hall this week. On the 25th anniversary of his death the Belcea Quartet essayed all three quartets, each totally distinctive, and a good sequence they make. The first (1941) is already fully characteristic and was given a full-blooded performance; intense projection is a hallmark of the Belceas, remembered first from their forceful account of Beethoven Op.95 in the 1997 finals of the 7th London International String Quartet Competition. The Second Quartet (1945) is a prime testimony to Britten's devotion to Purcell, and the creative legacy to that genius often displayed in his own music. The long, solemn Chacony made a profound impression, as did the death-laden third and last Quartet, with its strong connection with the opera Death In Venice, of which the Belceas had the full measure. In an interval interview, Sigmund Nissel described Britten's satisfaction with a run through at his home, very shortly before his own death, which preceded the premiere. The Hölderlin-Fragmente (1958) for tenor and piano sat uneasily with the quartets and were an odd choice to represent Britten the composer for voice. Ian Bostridge was emphatic in declaiming these German texts, but his voice was unalluring on this occasion, and those songs presented neither singer nor composer to best advantage, besides making this three part concert overlong.

Britten's Hymn to Saint Cecilia was scheduled for the following night, but in the event was taken out of The English Concert's programme without explanation. But two major works by Purcell preserved the Britten connection and neither can often have made a stronger or more moving effect. Trevor Pinnock (standing at the harpsichord) has a wonderful, relaxed way (or so it appears) to bring out the best from his players and singers and a feeling of warmth and delight in music making flows down from the platform. The players, led by that wonderful baroque violinist Rachel Podger, put their hearts into it and gave an inspiriting Concerto Grosso (Op.6 No.9) by the adopted Englishman, Handel. In Welcome to all the Pleasures (1683) soloists came from within the choir to make each of the delectable arias and ensemble moments memorable; these Odes and Welcome Songs are British music treasures, as indeed is The English Concert, who are - like the Arditti String Quartet - " surely one of Englandís most important music exports" (Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt) - both more often to be heard abroad. The English Concert has just completed a major project, touring 'Great Religious Works of the 18th Century' a 6-year cycle which came to a close with an inspiring performance of Haydn's The Creation which we reviewed in Lucerne last month.

Dido and Aeneas was given one of those semi-staged concert productions which leave one feeling that no-one really needs full staging. Simple positioning and gestures to establish the relationship between Dido (Diana Moore) & Belinda (Carolyn Sampson) and Aeneas (Roderick Williams); well chosen costume to characterise the Sorceress (Felicity Palmer) and her Witches; sailor hats for Act 3, - it was all absolutely perfect. Great singing all round, in perfect style, without the inflation of scale (e.g. Flagstad) one had seen in this deservedly famous 'first real opera in English'. In the orchestra, a special mention for William Carter (theorbo & baroque guitar) and the sailor-hatted player (unnamed) who surprised us by entering from the back playing baroque oboe. A great British Music evening, and two consecutive nights which reminded us of the irreplaceable contribution which the Wigmore Hall makes in London's musical life.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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