The timing was fortuitous. With a month to go until the centenary of Britten’s birth the long haul of anniversary events is nearing its climax, while the Southbank Centre’s year-long festival of 20th-century music, entitled The Rest is Noise, continues to make its steady chronological progress and is just arriving at the 1950s and 60s.
Over two weeks the Southbank Centre has been focusing on Britten with talks and films, as well as music. But few of the events are likely to be as rewarding as this all-Britten concert – a generously long programme of four works, not his most familiar, and all spectacularly well played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under its principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski.
Neither of the works in the first half – the Prelude and Dances from the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas and the Suite Op. 90 (“A time there was”) – is generally thought to be Britten at his best. Take a conductor like Jurowski, though, with the ability to invest every phrase with colour and precision, and one’s concentration leaps. The ballet score came across as a vivid orchestral spectacular, however hand-me-down its material (too many echoes of Stravinsky’s Petrushka). And the Suite Op. 90 did not sound at all like cosy English folk songs as it can, but gritty, to the point and brilliantly imaginative.
In the Nocturne, for tenor and small orchestra, Jurowski and his players provided Mark Padmore with a backdrop of the most perfect, delicate fragility. Every detail was precisely chiselled out in Britten’s moonlit accompaniments and Padmore responded with singing that illuminated the poetry with just the same kind of sensitive detail, though vocally he sometimes sounds a bit hard-pressed these days.
The soloist in the Cello Symphony was the deeply pensive Truls Mork, a long-standing champion of Britten’s works for cello. How fortunate he was here to have Jurowski holding back the orchestra so that the cello could be heard (Rostropovich’s huge sound has been the bane of all the cellists who have had to follow him) and getting electricity to course through every hushed phrase. After playing so perfectly prepared and beautifully detailed as this, the rest is noise indeed.