Classical review: SCO: Britten 100 II, Glasgow

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WITH yet another programme featuring a single piece of Benjamin Britten at its core, you’d expect the novelty of the current pan-orchestra Britten 100 week to be wearing off.

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Hardly the case, though, in last night’s programme by the SCO under the perfectionist direction of George Benjamin.

The Britten work in this case was the sublime Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, and a performance that was as distinct, individual and thoroughly refreshing. What struck you instantly, once horn soloist Alec Frank-Gemmill had sounded the opening Prologue, was Benjamin’s unhurried pacing, which drew a magical stillness in the Pastoral, a ghostly inevitability in the Dirge and a quiet, ethereal density in the final Sonnet.

Tenor soloist John Mark Ainsley’s engaging performance was driven by charm and gentle characterisation, Frank-Gemmill’s by impeccable virtuosity.

Everything surrounding that pivotal moment in the evening bore the same combination of sparkle and finesse. The smaller ensemble that gave us Harrison Birtwistle’s fresh and frenetic Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum made light work of the textural fireworks.

It was worthwhile, too, to hear another performance by the SCO of Martin Suckling’s storm, rose, tiger, though in Benjamin’s hands the raw fragility of its evolving microtonal language was awesome, the final moments more Sibelian than I’ve ever heard it.

The evening ended with Mozart’s Symphony No 40, blissfully unfussy and unpretentious, yet filled with ripe, inspired thoughts.