This neatly planned concert brought together English composers from three generations. The BBC Symphony Orchestra has English music on its mind this season – most adventurously it is reviving all four of Tippett’s symphonies – and for this programme chose a new piece by 22-year-old Anna Clyne to partner works by the youthful Britten and the mature Elgar.
Born in London, but more recently based in New York, Clyne was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to write a new orchestral work, which was given its premiere in February last year. Night Ferry takes its inspiration from a multitude of sources – Schubert’s periods of depression, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, a series of canvases layered with charcoal, ribbon and gauze, and more.
So much seems to have gone into it that one might have feared that a sprawling jumble of ideas would come out, but the 20-minute Night Ferry is quite the opposite: focused and repetitive. Swirling strings depict a turbulent sea, the same short motif tossed over and over a very static harmonic base, until the ferry reaches harbour in a peaceful wind chorale based on the same motif at the end. It is the kind of striking, but not challenging piece that suits a big American orchestra, and it worked well enough here in a vigorous performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton. How much further, though, Britten travelled in his stormy sea interlude from Peter Grimes, and in about half the time.
It was Britten’s Piano Concerto that formed the brilliant centrepiece to this programme. With his energy and ripe, brass-heavy sonorities Litton tilted the work uncomfortably towards circus music, and it was left to the pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, to lift the concerto on to the higher plane of precision thinking that Britten would have admired – not just hard-toned brilliance either, but often elfin-light, visionary playing.
After the interval Elgar’s Symphony No.1 came across as outgoing and rumbustious. Litton knows and loves the English repertoire and paints Elgar in imperial shades of red, gold and purple with unabashed confidence. A fondness for hammering home some of the big moments risked sounding crude at times, but the nobility of the symphony’s motto theme and, especially, the open-hearted warmth of the slow movement clearly came from the heart.