Benjamin Britten’s Dark Materials: Russian Funeral, Nocturne, Lachrymae, Death in Venice.

Martyn Brabbins and the brass & percussion of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened with the lamenting processional that is Russian Funeral (1936, performed once, not published, and not revived until after the composer’s passing). Incorporated is a revolutionary song later used by Shostakovich in Symphony 11, Britten’s version of it becoming enlivened by trumpet tattoos before sinking back to bleakness.

Cue strings, seven obbligato instruments (bassoon, harp, horn, timpani, cor anglais, flute, clarinet, all becoming a consort for the ultimate setting) and tenor Mark Padmore for Nocturne (1958), written for Peter Pears, to invoke sleep, dreams, moonlit enchantment… texts by Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, Shakespeare, and others. This performance was notable for its seamless inevitability, Padmore’s restraint (drawing the listener in) as well as some distinguished solo playing – even when ‘only’ engaging over the airwaves, and with the room lights on, the ‘night’ of the piece was fully conjured, eerie, magical.

Next in this without-audience concert was Lachrymae, composed for the viola of William Primrose (1948 with piano, revised 1976 with string orchestra), interior and economical invention, Britten musing on a melancholy lute song by John Dowland (1563-1626), this source not fully revealed until the end, variations in search of a theme. It was sensitively performed by Scott Dickinson (BBCSSO principal) and finely supported by his colleagues.

Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s novella, is Britten’s final opera, first staged in 1973 at Aldeburgh conducted by Steuart Bedford. It was Bedford who put together this continuous twenty-five-minute orchestral Suite derived entirely from the stage-work, a disquieting, curdled and sinister sequence, cinematically coloured by (mostly) tuned/chiming percussion, to represent the “sick” city (cholera) and the numerous characters inhabiting and arriving there, dying there. Brabbins and the BBCSSO did the score proud, engrossing and haunting.