Alina Ibragimova barely glanced up from her score during her Bach concerto with Britten Sinfonia last night, and the result was some of the most intense, beautiful music-making I can recall hearing. With just six members of the orchestra providing her with impeccable support, this was a performance of a sort of off-the-cuff brilliance in which Ibragimova sounded like she was simply playing a favourite piece of hers in private. Every touch, every shift of style or mood, seemed spontaneous, born of an impulsive, powerful love. The ensemble's imperfect balance (it turns out that a three-person continuo section slightly overpowers a three-person orchestra plus soloist) only made me lean in further, and pay even closer attention to this exceptional performance.
It was a performance that meant I'd probably have taken anything that followed with a smile on my face, and especially a piece as sonically lush as Ēriks Ešenvalds' AQUA, for strings and small chorus. Setting an aquatically-themed quotation from the Gospel of Matthew, AQUA – here on its world première tour – sounded like a compendium of ways to evoke water and the sea. From humming wine glasses to waves of rich chords in strings,AQUA was perhaps not the most groundbreaking composition (it veered perilously close to arty-nature-documentary territory at times), but there was plenty to enjoy in its sensuous, evocative tones.
Ešenvalds was the first of two Latvian composers on the bill, which carried the title "Baltic Nights". The second was Pēteris Vasks, whose substantial violin concerto Distant Light saw Ibragimova return to the stage in the second half. Vasks has said that the concerto concerns itself with the idea of a "more ideal world", and it carries a delicate note of optimism through its soft shimmerings, swishes of colour and occasional bursts of tonal harmonies. This introspective and rather sweet composition was a wonderful fit for Ibragimova's impassioned, serious style, especially when coupled with Britten Sinfonia, who find a way to get straight to the soul of whatever they happen to play.
Vasks' piece was preceded by some more Bach: his motet Komm, Jesu, komm! for double chorus was performed with great clarity, one to a part, by Britten Sinfonia Voices. The choir had earlier begun the concert too, with Pérotin's Viderunt omes (c. 1198), one of the earliest surviving pieces of music ever to contain four distinct parts. While I enjoyed this performance, I remain unsure of what historical "Baltic" connection this Parisian composition could really claim, or whether this piece above any other medieval music (including plainchant) could lay claim to similarities to the rest of the programmed works. The variety on this bill, however, was hugely enjoyable, and musically speaking the pieces complemented each other rather well, with a hint of earnestness running throughout which was always offset by an indulgent warmth of tone.
It's maybe a slight shame, overall, that the interesting, worthwhile contemporary pieces this evening were overshadowed by a Bach concerto – particularly when it was the new pieces which were the concert's main attraction. But Ibragimova's was a Bach performance which seemed to be the "distant light" that Vasks' piece only hinted at. Catch her playing Bach if you can.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
Alina Ibragimova © Sussie Ahlburg 2012