Back in 1943, Britten’s Prelude and Fugue for string orchestra had its premiere at Wigmore Hall. The brilliant energy of this performance by the Britten Sinfonia sought to recapture the spirit of that occasion and a display in the foyer usefully reminds us how close Britten’s connection to the hall was, including an impressive number of premieres, often with the composer performing.
St Cecilia’s Day last Thursday marked exactly a year to go until the centenary of Britten’s birth. Throughout the day there were launch parties announcing what promises to be an exhaustive programme of events, in which most of the country’s leading cultural organisations are taking part, and a full list of performances worldwide can be found at the Britten 100 website (www.britten100.org).
With the starting gun having been sounded, Wigmore Hall is the first to get its Britten centenary festival up and running. It is hard to imagine a better start than this imaginative concert – part Britten, part Britten-related – or a more exhilarating soloist to kick off the celebration than Alice Coote. In homage to Britten’s many realisations of Purcell, she started with Purcell’s “Let the Night Perish” in a new version with cosmic pretensions by Nico Muhly and then really set off the fireworks with some grand and impassioned singing in three arias from Handel’s Alcina. On this form, Coote is a worthy successor to Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker in the honourable British mezzo-soprano tradition.
It helped that she had such lively accompaniment from the Britten Sinfonia, directed from the violin by Jacqueline Shave. In a selection of orchestral pieces that cleverly avoided the obvious, they played several of Britten’s own Purcell realisations, a version of Dido’s “Lament” by Leopold Stokowski that shamelessly costumes the music with Hollywood glamour, and Tippett’s Little Music for Strings, a reminder of how entertaining Britten’s lesser-appreciated contemporary could be.
For the closing item, Coote returned to sing Britten’s Phaedra, composed for Janet Baker and the most inspiring of the composer’s works from his final years. Here was another exceptional performance, Coote immersing herself in the drama with such intensity that it seemed she (and the audience) had lived through an entire opera, not just a 20-minute solo cantata. A rewarding evening.