Proms Diary: Saturday Matinee 5: Camerata Nordica

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Daniel Jaffé enjoys a Britten world premiere at the BBC Proms

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A nearly packed Cadogan Hall welcomed Camerata Nordica, Sweden’s 20-strong band of string players making their first appearance at the BBC Proms. Dressed in black and led by Terje Tønnesen (‘Terryeh Tennyson’ sounds close enough), the players – apart from the cellists – perform standing up as do so many chamber ensembles today. The main focus of their concert was the centenary composer Benjamin Britten, and Camerata Nordica launched into a would-be lively account of the opening movement of Britten’s Simple Symphony. Originally intended for school orchestras, it was compiled and arranged in 1933-34 by the 20-year-old Britten from works he had originally composed in his teens. ‘Boisterous Bourrée’ sounded rather nervy and brusque with less than tidy ensemble, fatally missing the music’s good-natured warmth. ‘Playful Pizzicato’, though still taken at a lively tempo, had better ensemble, the central trio section (marked in the score Molto pesante – ‘Very heavy’) taken at a more deliberate than usual tempo, bringing out its galumphing rusticity. Any doubts as to the band’s quality melted with ‘Sentimental Sarabande’, sensitively played and emotionally engaged, the violas proving their quality in their singing theme, and ending in a hushed tone which was truly moving.

After Camerata Nordica’s exhilarating if ensemble-fraying ‘Frolicsome Finale’, BBC Radio 3 presenter Clemency Burton-Hill joined the band on stage to interview Tønnesen about the ensemble’s history. Founded in the early 1970s, numbering four players, Camerata Nordica today includes players from at least ten nations. Asked by Burton-Hill to describe the next work on the programme, Tippett’s Little Music for Strings (1946), Tønnesen would only venture that it was ‘much milder’ compared to the Britten we had just heard. Camerata Nordica gave what seemed a fair performance of Little Music’s lively rhythms and mildly dissonant chords, though after the exuberant Britten the work did sound rather grey and generic – certainly not as striking or as beautiful as Tippett’s slightly later Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli, but presumably Little Music was preferred for this programme due to its relative brevity.

There was much more life and colour in the 14-year-old Britten’s Elegy for strings, receiving its world premiere in this concert. This opened with a richly textured and nobly Handel-style lament, followed by a lively but discursive Allegro. Not surprisingly, there was much which stylistically recalled Simple Symphony. Admittedly there was little in the way of coherent structure to the piece, filled with enough invention for three entirely different works; but there were some striking episodes including one unexpectedly launched by a solo violin which revived the elegiac mood.

Then came what was, for me, the highlight of the concert: Britten’s Lachrymae for solo viola and strings. English viola player Catherine Bullock shyly came to the front of the stage and admitted to Burton-Hill that she found the prospect of taking the limelight ‘scary’. Yet as soon as she started to play Britten’s atmospheric and eerily scored Lachrymae, her mastery and confidence as a player took over in a compelling performance of a great masterpiece.

Compared to the mature Britten’s succinct 15 minutes, Walton’s lyrically poignant Sonata for String Orchestra, beautiful though it is and superbly written for strings, seemed a touch on the long side at approaching half an hour. Still, it was a fitting end to a curious concert of English string music.

Listen to this Prom on iPlayer for the next few days here. For more information about the festival, visit the BBC Proms website.