LAST night’s City Halls concert focused on the potent influence of Mahler on Britten, Martyn Brabbins directing the BBC SSO in a first half that prefaced the Quatre Chansons Françaises – written when Britten was a mere 14-year-old – with the more mature Gloriana: Symphonic Suite, and a second half filled with Mahler’s effervescent Symphony No 4.
The most interesting comparison to surface was between the Britten songs and the Mahler symphony. For these teenage settings of Hugo and Verlaine are so obviously modelled on the sensitive, gestural wisps of colour you associate with Berg or Webern, who, of course, took up the Mahler mantle.
What they are not is recognisably Britten, their central abstract qualities warmed by Ravel-like Impressionist whiffs, and even, in the third song, the heated lyricism of Wagner. They were sung with absorbing delicacy by the soprano Elizabeth Watts.
It was Watts’ final movement reappearance in the Mahler symphony that lifted Brabbins’ carefully crafted reading to the ethereal heights it was striving for. To that point, he let it largely run its own course, minimum indulgence that captured the necessary sense of troubled innocence, but occasionally left the earlier movements short on visceral electricity. The final moments, though, were magical.
By that time, Britten’s suite from his opera Gloriana seemed like a distant memory, which is not to dispel the mix of triumphalism, reflection and mourning that Brabbins elicited from its colourful pages.