There’s eclectic programming, and then there’s 900 years of music in one evening. A concert pairing sacred hymns by 11th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen with Oliver Knussen’s whimsical musings on Winnie the Pooh really shouldn’t work, but really does, in the hands of the ever-unexpected Britten Sinfonia.
You never know quite what you’re going to get with this chamber orchestra, as likely to turn their hand to a Bach Passion or a Mahler Symphony as experimental contemporary music. Here just five players are directed by rising young conductor Jack Sheen in a performance that’s more ritual than concert – a group meditation with just enough irony to puncture any resistance to the hipsterish cool of it all.
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Running through the concert – structural pillars to hold this sonic trip together – are three works by von Bingen, arranged for the performance by Sheen himself.
Soprano Jennifer France sings the composer’s gloriously arching melodies, while around her flute, clarinet, cello, cor anglais and – most striking – a vibraphone, softly stroked with brushes, create a luminous halo of resonance. Occasionally clarinet or cello steps forward – ghost doubles or echoes, mirroring the voice.
The effect is mesmerising, bringing von Bingen into the 21st century and into touching distance of Jurg Frey’s Circular Music No. 2 – a sequence of the softest sounds and textures suspended in time and space – and Sheen’s own Hollow propranolol séance. Named after a heart-slowing drug, this centrepiece is a reflection on lockdown isolation. The ticks and whirrs and rustles of our solitary lives are translated into an intricate shadow-play of sound: tingling cymbal buzz, muttering cello, fidgety stillness.
It’s mesmerising stuff, but needs the bracing extremes and the fun of Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh – whose score calls for a cardboard box, a balloon and a pin in addition to its other instruments – to shake it up. Three short, half-remembered re-tellings of AA Milne’s stories are narrated in instrumental buzzes (those pesky bees) and high soprano cries, with a bass clarinet adding some cartoon menace.
France is a gifted singing-actress, and it’s all in the eyes here, as she leads us through fragmented episodes of elation and excitement, coaxing us to keep up before lulling us into sleep in the final “Cloud Piece”. A musical goodnight story for adults.
Britten Sinfonia, Jack Sheen, Wigmore Hall, available to stream at: wigmore-hall.org.uk/watch-listen/live-stream