sun 26/09/2021

Mofidian, Britten Sinfonia, Elder, Saffron Hall review - meditations and mirth | reviews, news & interviews

Mofidian, Britten Sinfonia, Elder, Saffron Hall review - meditations and mirth

Mofidian, Britten Sinfonia, Elder, Saffron Hall review - meditations and mirth

Back-to-front but brilliant: a fizzing overture and premiere follow Wagner and Mahler

Mark Elder conducting the Britten Sinfonia (with Thomas Gould, right) PC (Pre-Covid)Britten Sinfonia

How strange to experience Saffron Walden’s amazingly high-standard new(ish) concert hall without the usual auditorium – in other words no tiered rows other than in the balcony, but seats around tables, on a level with the musicians (pictured below, the scene before the performance). And what a world-class concert this was, not the sort of thing you’d usually expect at the end of a misty afternoon’s ramble in the Essex countryside.

It was a topsy-turvy programme, to be sure, with meditations bright (Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll) and dark (Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder) followed by an anything but tea-shoppe arrangement of Johann Strauss the Younger’s Overture to Die Fledermaus and a wacky world premiere; but it all worked like a rather strange dream. This was Mark Elder’s first time before a live audience since March – his Hallé concerts have had to stay unspectated, owing to Manchester’s Level 3 status – and it must have been a strange feeling for him to conduct his beloved Wagner in chamber-music mode. It was news to me that, as Elder told us before the performance, the composer added the brief trumpet and viola parts to the other 11 instruments for conductor Hans Richter to master. That added piquancy to an intensely poetic performance, very much led by Thomas Gould, whose translucency throughout and special magic with the trills that lead to new magic at the heart of the piece sounded supernaturally beautiful in the hall. Saffron Hall before Britten Sinfonia concertIf the horn calls were a bit more poker-faced, less fun than usual, Alex Wide made amends with some heartbreaking solos in Eberhard Kloke’s skilful reduction of Mahler’s already sparely-scored Songs on the Deaths of Children (harp taking on glockenspiel, no cello as you would expect, a revelation nonetheless). It’s a downer of a title, of course, and the cycle asks a lot of its listeners. Certainly Roderick Williams could have been trusted to project every nuance meaningfully; but he was unable to make the rescheduled concert, and we had a different kind of performance from young bass-baritone Michael Mofidian, not long graduated from the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and the Royal Academy of Music.

Mofidian’s is a voice in a thousand, unusually well suited for the depths into which Mahler sends his soloist, but also managing all those crucial phrases which go over the top so impressively: I’m sure that coaching with Elder helped with the difficulties of the songs’ insane range. Still more with the text and confidence in fully communicating to the audience will come with time; but the long-awaited balm at the end of the sequence did achieve the deepest emotion. Britten Sinfonia in Saffron HallWhat joy, then, to hear the Fledermaus Overture, dashingly led by Gould without the schmaltz you might expect from a kind of palm-court orchestra, so preferable (in this jaded person’s view) to the whole over-extended operetta, so hard to make funny these days. Wit was there, too, in the last piece of the hour-plus: Roderick Williams present in spirit, in his other guise as composer, having fashioned a tribute to the Britten Sinfonia’s outgoing (outgone) Chief Executive and Artistic Director, David Butcher (pictured above right with Mofidian, Elder and Britten Sinfonia players). Contrary to the note’s avowal that for The Show Must Go On, Williams had translated a text attributed to Kafka, the “libretto” is a compendium of glam-rock lines, homaging Butcher’s addiction to the genre in his younger days.

There was pizzazz in the scoring, but ultimately a rather lovely dematerialisation as the soloist bids “Goodbye, Blue Sky! Goodbye Cruel World!’, bound for “The Great Gig in the Sky, A Voyage to the Centre of the Cosmos!”. Mofidian scored a real bonus here in learning and delivering with panache. And we left floating on air, out into a foggy night without stars.

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