Benjamin Britten – String Quartets No 1 in D Op 25, No 2 in C Op 36 and No 3 Op 94
All three Britten string quartets in one evening. Courtesy of the Doric String Quartet. Who have been working hard on this very repertoire, visible in their recent acclaimed recording. The Quartet has a long association with Britten’s music, having formed at Pro Corda in 1998, the school near Aldeburgh, and with Helene Grimaud playing on Britten’s very own viola.
Britten’s music can, I imagine, sound either too austere or too cautious for many listeners, depending on their musical taste. Too flashy, relying on surface effect, in thrall to musical form, and not generating real emotion. A bit too obvious, even too “perfect” maybe, though not immediately appealing. For me though this is his genius. The musical ideas are clear, but still present a challenge to those of us who don’t really understand music, even though they are not actually that challenging. In 1970s football parlance, one of those technical European midfielders, “good on the ball” but somehow suspect, lacking passion or “an engine”. But with performers who love and understand the music, and locate its centre and line, then there is feeling and passion aplenty. Easiest to find in the vocal and choral works and the operas but also abundant, for me at least, in the chamber music and, specifically, the three string quartets.
Which is where the Dorics step in. For there is no holding back here. They have a big, muscular sound which, whilst never obscuring the clarity of thought which is BB’s trademark, especially in the super sparse Third gives the quartets a punch and a drama that I haven’t encountered before. Less ascetic, more buoyant. Though never too extroverted, true I believe to BB’s intentions. Though with plenty of volume when required.
The First was completed in 1941, to a commission from Elizabeth Coolidge during Britten and Pears’s US sojourn, (though it is not actually the first quartet, BB having revived an early composition in the key of D, when just 17, late in life). It starts with a yearning sostenuto, missing Blighty perhaps, is followed by a swanky runaround Allegretto, a nocturnal Andante led by Alex Redington’s violin and ending with the sparkling harmonies of a rondo finale. Easy to place in the flash harry early years for BB.
Which is why the Second Quartet composed just 4 years later, when BB was deep in Peter Grimes, is still so surprising to me. Commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, BB’s beloved forebear, it kicks off with a full throated Allegro, owing much to Schubert in feel and Haydn in form. The terse Vivace which follows links this movement to the final, stunning Chacony. BB just loved this form, variously chaconne or passacaglia, but his one is a belter. Near 20 minutes long, it shifts its shape continuously and, in places, gets a bit weird. The Doric’s really got hold of it and gave it a good shake. Loved it.
Which in turn set up the Third. BB waiting 30 years before coming back to the form and was near the end by the time he started. Not quite as death suffused as DSCH’s final fifteenth quartet, but still pretty bleak. At least until the final Passacaglia movement. In a work that quotes liberally from the final opera Death in Venice, this movement, like its equivalent in the opera, suggests a peaceful farewell for the protagonist, whether Aschenbach or BB. Prior to that, in the oppositional two part Duets, the jarring Ostinato scherzo, the central poignant Solo cantilena for first violin and the scorching Burlesque which precedes the descriptive Recitative which introduces that Passacaglia, we hear some of BB’s best ever beats.
As good a performance of BB’s quartets as you are likely to hear and, a reminder of why they are up there with late Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich as the best of the form.
London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Denis Matsuev (piano)
Barbican Hall, 31st October 2019
Britten – Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from ‘Peter Grimes’
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No 2,
Shostakovich – Symphony No 6
Right if I am ever to catch up I am going tp have to be ruthless. So this is just for me and just for the sake of completeness.
Britten’s Sea Interludes showed off the colour and virtuosity of the LSO sections and included the Passacaglia where the Borough Brexiteers go after Peter, but wasn’t quite as atmospheric or as unified as some interpretations I have heard (and trust me, much like the Shostakovich here, I have heard a few). More Southwold than Aldeburgh. Still in getting to the darker recesses of the opera itself this was a success.
Prokofiev’s PC No 2 is, by reputation, an absolute bastard to play. Denis Matsuev showed me why in what is, apparently, his party piece. For a big fella he can move his hands, which he needs to, from one end to the other, extravagant crossing in the opening two movements. It was a manly reading, I could imagine Martha Argerich say covering the immense and inventive ground that SP, a mean tinkler of the ivories himself, demands, in a much more graceful way, but this was still a tremendous introduction to a piece, along with the other 4 SP created, that I need to do more work on. These abrupt shifts of mood and idea, the relegation of the orchestra to support act or even lower on the bill, the fact that after a massive opening movement and a ludicrously quick moto perpetuo second, there is no let up in the third, a mechanistic march. And then the forth kicks off again with the piano as percussion thing. Until, of course this being Prokofiev it turns, into, of all things, a folksy Russian jig.
SP originally wrote it in 1913. He left Russia in 1918, though famously, and bullishly, returned, and the original score was destroyed in a fire. So he reconstructed and revised it in 1924. Which maybe. in part, explains why it still sounds so, well, special and unique.
I have heard 4 and 8 of Gianandrea Noseda’s survey of the DSCH symphonies prior to this. This was equally as accomplished if occasionally lacking a little in astringency. No 6 is nuts. After the crowd pleasing, match winner of No 5, which got him back, temporarily in Stalin’s good books, he set out to “communicate feelings of spring happiness and youth”. Usual DSCH deadpan irony. After a sub 20 minute Largo, which feels longer, there is an Allegro galop and finally a rowdy Presto finale. Three movements. All over in half an hour.
What was he up to? Well listen more closely and you hear that, far from wandering off piste again, DSCH was actually very much toe-ing the Classical line. Almost all the material in the opening movement is derived Bach-like from the opening few bars, with clear signposts, from cor anglais, trumpet and harps amongst others, and a second half sonata form set up. The second movement is contrapuntal, more like the fast movements in the later string quartets than anything in other DSCH’s other symphonic manic dances, with a groovy clarinet solo. And the Finale, if you squint your eyes, (or whatever the aural equivalent is), could be Beethoven or even Mozart, an upbeat Rondo to get the feet tapping. Well maybe not quite. Certainly Rossini with another of those gnomic William Tell quotations. My guess is that, even if the thought police had got to work on his fingernails, Dmitri himself wouldn’t have know if he was taking the piss or playing it straight here.
The LSO seemed more on the ball in the symphony than the concerto, perhaps unsurprising given they have been round the block a few times now with GN but, if I am honest, it was the Prokofiev that had most impact. I am getting closer to cracking him I think and Mr Matsuev’s literally banging way as a soloist floated my boat.
Leningrad (No 7) next up though the Tourist won’t be there, (sold out I see which is a good thing) then No 9 (which never gets an airing and it a close cousin of No 6).
P.S. The photo above shows SP and DS in 1940. The fella with the Eraserhead cut is Aram Khachaturian, who, amazingly given the relative safety of his grooves managed to be denounced as a “formalist” along with his two mates, though not for long.
You might think it’s a bit sad really. A grown man in his 50s on his own at a children’s opera performed by a community that he cannot claim to be any part of. Unfortunately my kids never caught the Britten bug when younger, despite what I thought were subtle attempts to influence them, and are now way too old to traipse along with Dad to this sort of thing. Actually what am I talking about? There was never a cat’s chance in hell that they were going to fall for Britten or opera, children’s or otherwise. A situation likely shared by 99.999999999% of the population. Which meant I was pretty much the only audience member there for the opera than the performers.
For this was the only Britten opera, (if you discount his version of Gay’s Beggars Opera), that the Tourist had never seen. And completism, as my regular reader undoubtedly registered sometime ago, is one of the Tourist’s many vices. As is condescension. So forgive me when I say that the bulk of the audience probably had next to no interest in Britten or his operas. But they did have a vested interest in seeing their little darlings on stage. And I can assure you that those kids made them properly proud. Though I would contend that, without the genius of BB, and the unnamed writer who created the Chester mystery play text from which the Victorian writer Alfred W Pollard drew his adaptation, this wouldn’t have been anything close to the uplifting entertainment it was.
BB had already written a little children’s opera, The Little Sweep, in 1949 (part of Let’s Make an Opera) and also previously adapted text from the Chester play cycle for his Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac. To Pollard’s text he added a few hymns, a Kyrie and an Alleluia chorus. There is a spoken Voice of God, played by acting royalty Suzanne Bertish no less, and Noah and his wife are both professional roles, here Marcus Farnsworth and Louise Callinan. Whilst Mr Farnsworth may be better known in recital he also has a distinguished opera CV to date and Ms Callinan is a veteran of multiple European houses. This, along with the 15 members of the ENO Orchestra, Martin Fitzpatrick, (Head of Music at ENO who conducted), Lyndsey Turner directing, and the likes of Soutra Gilmour (designer), Oliver Fenwick (lighting), Luke Halls (video), Lynne Page (movement), Oliver Jeffers (artwork) and Wayne McGregor (choreography), shows just how seriously the ENO took this production. This serious intent though never crushed the joy of its construction.
For Noye’s Fludde is really all about the amateur participants across the named human, (Noah’s sons and their wives and some gossips), and animal, (plenty of these, as you might expect), roles and the chorus. Step forward and take a bow Brampton Primary School, Churchfields Junior School, Newham Music and Newham Music Hub, and all the other local musicians and singers who were a part of this mammoth effort. And the Mums, Dads, siblings, Grannies, Grandads, carers, teachers, teaching assistants, community assistants, chaperones, ENO and TRSE back and front stage folk who chipped in. I hope you enjoyed it. I certainly did, even without any companions.
Special thanks though to BB. The idea of Noye’s Fludde had kicked around for a few years but it was a TV commission, eventually championed by Lew Grade at ATV, that spurred BB on to completing the score in March 1958. The wonder is that such genuinely inventive and atmospheric music should have been so brilliantly created for amateur musicians, as well as the professional core. And not just for the bugles, (hand)-bells, whistles and all manner of other improvised instruments that populate the music. No, there are proper parts for violins, violas, cellos, double basses and recorders. More than that these parts vary in difficulty with each section led by a professional. And there are plenty of passages which flirt with dissonance, in the manner of BB’s “grown-up” operas, well beyond the stuff you might expect from a “children’s” piece.
Listen to the first hymn which has an out of step bass line motif to contrast the chorus which lends a darker quality. This bass motif is taken up by the timpani to herald the first of God’s warnings. The syncopated song which follows as the Noah family come up is much more upbeat. The jaunty Mahlerian march which accompanies the Kyrie presages the entry of the animals and follows a striking, literally, as all manner of percussive effects are provided by the amateurs, passage as the Ark is built. There is a clever three part canon to introduce the birds. The storm scene at the centre of the opera is that old BB favourite an extended passacaglia, which uses the whole chromatic scale. Mugs hit by wooden spoons simulate raindrops, recorder trills become wind, strings become waves, percussion thunder and lightning, pianos provide the motif. A pastoral follows when the storm subsides and then, obviously, there are simple waltzes on cello and recorder to see off Raven and Dove. As the Ark empties out the bugles sound with handbells, (who pop up throughout until the very end), signalling the appearance of the rainbow. A rainbow that here spreads right across the stage, a fitting symbol of pride, to set alongside the. ecological message.
The way in which BB takes his trademark sound, simplifies it and recasts it for the different skills of his performers is really very, very clever. That it also able to incorporate all these various voices, including, sparingly, the audience and still create really effective, and moving, theatre is even more extraordinary. And just in case you are thinking this all sounds a little too tricksy-twee-schmatlzy-worthy there are plenty of clever visual gags from the animals to undercut it all.
BB specified the opera be performed in public, community spaces or churches rather than theatres. TRSE is such a dear old place however, and the “child’s picture book” design here, (which expertly captures the professional/amateur essence), so enchanting, that I am sure BB wouldn’t have complained. No idea if BB ever even met the architect of TRSE’s heyday Joan Littlewood but it is fitting that this vital piece of community theatre should have been so splendidly realised in such a space.
The corruption of innocence, the struggle of good vs evil, Christ-like redemption and Pilate-like equivocation, the conflict between natural and legal justice, the outsider’s struggle for acceptance, repressed, scopophiliac, homosexual desire, the rational, scientific world contrasted with the mythic poetry of the imagination, dreams, the sea, the biblical musicality of his prose. Even the same initials. It isn’t much of a surprise than Benjamin Britten, who always fancied himself as a bit of a martyr, and his librettists EM Forster and Eric Crozier alighted on Herman Melville’s classic novella for operatic treatment.
Forster had long been an admirer of Britten’s music, (who wouldn’t be), but the idea only crystallised in 1948. Eric Crozier was brought in to provide the expert, though not always smooth, link between composer and novelist. The premiere of the original production, in four acts, appeared on this very stage on 1st December 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. The revised two act version, with epilogue and prologue for Captain Vere alone, first appeared here in 1964 but it is 19 years since the ROH last staged it in a production directed by Francesca Zambello.
The last time I saw it was in 2012 at the ENO in the Expressionistic version served up by David Alden. In one of Dad’s more widely inappropriate attempts to get BD into opera she came along too. Smart-arse that she was, and is, the themes, even when concealed by Mr Alden’s somewhat wilful interpretation, didn’t evade her. Even under all that maritime lingo this isn’t subtle even when it is ambiguous.
Having witnessed director Deborah Warner’s way with BB in The Turn of the Screw many years ago at the Barbican and in the Death in Venice revival at the ENO in 2013, (with the SO who surprised herself with a favourable reaction), as well as Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, I wasn’t going to miss this production originally seen in Rome and Madrid. For once the Tourist paid up to sit downstairs though for opera of this scale, ( a cast of over 20 and a chorus of 60), and quality at this venue it seemed like a bargain when compared too the kind of bonkers prices the ROH normally requires from punters for a prime perch. Lucky for me those prices are generally the norm for the very repertoire I can’t abide.
(I know that there are bargains to be found, I normally sit in them, but they are compromised. Up in the amphitheatre you might be forgiven for thinking you had travelled to Zone 2, for example, and at the back of the balcony boxes you might want to take a book).
Billy Budd is BB’s grandest opera, in terms of music and ideas, but, self-evidently, it has one obvious constraint. Namely it is all blokes. BB is somewhat unfairly criticised for not serving up any top-drawer female roles. Ellen Orford, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Female Chorus and Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia and, though I can’t be sure since I have never seen it, Queen Liz I in Gloriana, are all surely exceptions, but the fact is, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in writing for the male voice where he excelled. In Billy Budd his cup overfloweth with the central trio of tenor (Captain Vere, the captain of The Indomitable), the bass of Master at Arms, John Claggart and the baritone of Billy himself. Then there are another fourteen named roles amongst the officers and the seaman, four boy treble midshipmen, the speaking only cabin boy and a singing chorus of 60, count ’em, augmented by another 30 actors. Put together the drama of the story and the opportunity to weave in traditional music, (including shanties,) with BB’s genius facility for word and scene painting in music and, wallop, you have, BB’s most powerful operatic score.
The orchestra doesn’t skimp on woodwind and brass, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombone and tuba, and that’s before doubling up, or percussion, (though there are no “funny” tuned or untuned instruments smuggled in as in other works). So when conductor, here the reliable Ivor Bolton, orchestra and chorus are on song, as they were, especially that chorus under William Spaulding’s direction, then the director and principals have a strong base on which to build.
First decision for the director is whether to go full on 1797 or something more timeless. The former risks dialling up the salty procedurals in the scenes and libretto, the latter over-egging the psychological, parabolic, pudding. Deborah Warner has come out somewhere in the middle. The ROH chippies haven’t been beavering away creating a replica man of war. Instead the ship in Michael Levine’s design is conjured up from an immense skein of chains/ropes from which platforms, sails and hammocks, are suspended. This takes us above and below decks as required and leaves the chorus crew with, believable, work to do (choreography Kim Brandstrup). It’s brilliant. A near literal prison. Then again the rill of water front stage was maybe dispensable. The officer uniforms (costumes by Chloe Obolensky) are more mid C20 than late C18, with the crew in timeless sailor rags (albeit exquisitely tailored rags).
As with Death in Venice, the lighting design of Jean Kalman, (like the above, another of Ms Warner’s trusted collaborators), and Mike Gunning, (including that mist for the symbolic, unconsummated battle scene), is an integral part of Ms Warner’s vision. Billy Budd is not, even in the two act version, a hurried opera, rising and falling like the sea, (I may have got carried away here), to the key confrontations and confessionals. Deborah Warner’s allows some depth and breadth to emerge which maybe detracts from the required foul, claustrophobic atmosphere but brings the slippery themes, and overt symbolism, into focus. BB, whoever his collaborators, never allows moral certainty to emerge in his operas, that is why they are essentially so much better as theatre than most everything written in the previous century, (imagine Puccini or Wagner not melodramatically clunking you over the head every ten minutes – not possible see). Ms Warner wisely runs with BB’s uncertainty.
As usual the Tourist is not qualified to remark on the quality of the singing but, acting wise, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy himself stood out. Obvs he is good to look out, though not as much as Duncan Rock as Donald with his rippling abs, but he moves with complete naturalism and his Billy was “good” but never “simple”. And he certainly wrung some emotion out of his arias especially “the darbies”. Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, nails the giant credo, clear as a ship’s bell, and those inner demons, but could have been outwardly crueller. He is, as Ms Warner intended, an angel who is still falling, rather than full-on disciple of Satan. The still youthful looking Toby Spence’s De Vere does grow as the opera unfolds so that by the end, the “blessing” in the epilogue, he has us in the palm of his pious hand, but his remoteness in the first few scenes is disconcerting. I was also taken, again, with Thomas Olieman’s performance as Mr Redburn and Clive Bayley as the veteran Dansker.
Could you imagine a production that gets closer to some of the really dark questions about cruelty, sex, desire, exploitation and hierarchy that run counter to the narrative of atonement? Of course. Can I have a Billy who looks like who could deck and kill Claggart with one punch. Could there have been a little more “compartmentalisation” set wise to ensure the highlights in the score matched the action on stage? A bit more confusion and less exact choreography. Some sweat. blood and, look away now purists and families of Messers Forster and Crozier, some gratuitous swearing slipped in. A crew that really looked like they might eat the officers for breakfast. For sure.
On the other hand, in the literally overwhelming 34 chord sequence when Vere sentences Billy to death, in this production we stay with Billy and not Vere. And the three officers wordlessly damn him for hiding behind the legalese. Utterly brilliant. With that and other powerful memories I will happily take this production, until, hopefully, one comes along that really doesn’t hold back.
Composer Iain Bell and his librettist Emma Jenkins wanted to call this just The Women of Whitechapel. Some marketing types at the ENO decided it needed to be prefixed with the title of the infamous murderer, charitably I suppose to let the potential audience know its subject. Worse, to continue the tiresome obsession with perpetrator and not victims. For this opera is specifically written about the women who were murdered. The murderer does not appear. Shame then that the creator’s original intentions could not have been fully honoured. Mind you I see that some bozo US deathcore band has appropriated the grotesque misogynistic fixation at the heart of this story by calling themselves Whitechapel. The band are in their 30s. Grow up lads.
I was predisposed to this new opera from the start. And I was extremely impressed with the end result. I see some proper reviewers who, to be fair, know their opera unlike the Tourist, think the opera is lacking in dramatic impact. I disagree. Yes there is no central single heroine to latch on to, there is no narrative arc towards some sort of tragedy or redemption, there are a fair few characters, the overall feel of the piece is dark and it is made up of a procession of set pieces. But that reflects the story of the five women that Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins wanted to tell, (based on scrupulous research where possible as well as some leaps of imagination). For me it was very powerful and very involving throughout.
I also accept that some of Iain Bell’s music and the way in which Daniel Kramer directed many of the scenes verged, on occasion, towards Les Mis style caricature, though this is no bad thing in terms of the immediacy of impact. However the more obvious inspiration might be Britten, Peter Grimes for the tone of the piece, and Death in Venice for the musical colouring. Worthy template. Mr Bell does not have BB’s compositional facility but the mix of solo and ensemble pieces, the set pieces with chorus, the unusual instrumentation, (the eerie elastic tone of the cimbalom to signify the presence of the murderer for example), the shifting in and out of tonal and more dissonant, atonal music, all conjure up a similar atmosphere.
The opera is centred on the last of the known victims, Mary Kelly, superbly sung and realised by Natalya Romaniw. Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins have created roles specifically for the mature voices of some ENO big stars, namely Marie McLaughlin (Annie Chapman), Janis Kelly (Polly Nicholls), Susan Bullock (Liz Stride) and Lesley Garrett (Catherine Eddowes), as well as the redoubtable Josephine Barstow as Maud, the proprieter of the doss house where the women are forced to live. The illustrious cast is further enhanced by the presence of Alan Opie as the aloof Pathologist who carries out the autopsies on the women’s bodies, Robert Hayward as the compromised Chief of Police and Paul Sheehan as the intimidated Coroner. From the current ENO vintage Nicky Spence provides a lighter touch as Sergeant Strong, James Cleverton is a Photographer with dubious intentions, William Morgan a rather underwritten, reformist Writer and Alex Otterburn is Squibby a local butcher’s boy. On the evening I attended Sophia Elton also stood out as Mary’s voiceless daughter Magpie.
Soutra Gilmour has conjured up another striking set, though it is sombre and dark, (and a bit Goth), in line with the mood of the piece, which is sufficiently versatile to persuade as doss-house, pub, street, mortuary and funeral procession for the coup de theatre of the, slightly over-long, ending (in which Paul Anderson’s lighting design, literally, really shines). Martyn Brabbins’s enthusiasm for the score and the commitment of the ENO Orchestra was never in doubt even in the slightly padded passages.
I think the opera makes its points about the callous way that the patriarchal society of the day treats these poor women – the murderer is simply an extension of the more “respectable” men that abuse them – the solace and support they take from each other and their overwhelming fear as the threat mounts. On its own this work cannot counter a century of writing out the victims as the expense of the sick fascination with the male perpetrator, (turn on your TV any night of the week to see that is still par for the course), but it is a brave, ambitious and engrossing attempt to do so and to provide a valid three hours of musical theatre. The symbolism, the Minotaur metaphor, the male chorus poking through the windows of the doss-house, the final ascension, is thought through and adds texture to the naturalism of previous scenes. The more poetic passages in Emma Jenkins’s libretto similarly contrast with the vernacular episodes.
I read a fair few reviews in thinking about this. They were all written by blokes. There were, with few exceptions, wrong about this. Presumably they would have been happier seeing yet another production of that scrupulously unmanipulative tale of female agency Madama Butterfly.
English Chamber Orchestra, Jessica Cottis (conductor), Ben Johnson (tenor), Ben Goldscheider (horn)
Cadogan Hall, 16th March 2019
Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin
Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31
Purcell/Britten – Suite of Six Songs from Orpheus Britannicus
Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite
I love Britten’s Serenade, first performed in 1943. It might be one of my favourite ever pieces of classical music, up there with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Bach’s Violin Sonatas and, I am not ashamed to admit, The Four Seasons. I am not alone. There was a delightful senior in the lift at Cadogan Hall who concurred. But it needs a tenor and, especially, horn player, of the highest rank, to pull it off. The ECO of course has it in its genes, Benjamin Britten having been its first patron and founding musical influence.
Now there are many fine recordings, (I assume based on the artists involved), but as ever in Britten’s music the best bet is to have the great man conducting and, in this, if not in all, cases, Peter Pears, singing. I can see why the experts reckon the recordings with the mercurial Dennis Brain, for whom the part was written, on horn are definitive, but the first, from 1942 a year after the piece premiered, is a bit period scratchy for my liking, emotional as it is, and the second, a decade later, falls a bit short musically. Dennis Brain might just have been the greatest horn player of the C20 coming from, and there can’t be too many of these, a veritable dynasty of horn players. He died far too young, in rock’n’roll style, by wrapping his sports car round a tree. If he had lived longer who knows what the next generation of modernist composers, the likes of Ligeti and Berio, might have conjured up for him.
As for the Serenade though I actually prefer the later Britten/Pears recording on Decca with the LSO and Barry Tuckwell on horn. More musical, and Pears less comedy toff sounding, even if the horn is a tad less mysterious. I also love the second Bostridge with the BPO and Rattle and their principal horn Czech Radek Baborak. After all Ian Bostridge is surely better than Pears in most of Britten’s supreme vocal music. On that note make sure not to miss his Madwoman in Curlew River with the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court next March. The staging in 2013 for Britten’s centenary, directed by Netia Jones at St Giles Crippplegate, with players from the BS, and IB in the same role, was extraordinary. One of the best “opera” experiences of the Tourist’s life.
So tenor Ben Johnson and Ben Goldscheider on horn had a lot to live up to. And by and large they did. The Serenade is not performed as often as it should be IMHO which perhaps reflects the combination of small string ensemble, a skilled horn player and a dramatic tenor. Ben Johnson certainly has the flair for the dramatic, he was an ENO Harewood artist, and his clear, if not overwhelming voice, fitted the piece and hall well. Ben Goldscheider, a BBC Young Musician finalist, who is now studying with the aforementioned Radek Baborak, left a deeper impression, adept in the more virtuoso passages and capturing the mystery and thrill of the more striking passages, even if the more lyrical settings lacked a little emotion.
The six movements, (book-ended by solo Prologue and Epilogue for the horn eschewing valves to create natural harmonics), comprise settings of poems by Charles Cotton (Pastoral), Tennyson (Nocturne), Blake (Elegy), a C15 Anonymous Dirge, Ben Jonson (Hymn) and Keats (Sonnet). Serenade literally means “an evening piece” and the poems combine to take us through nightfall from dusk to midnight. The dark heart of the work is the Black “O rose thou art sick” and the scary, pounding march of the Dirge that follows, “This ae night”, but the tunes and, typically with Britten, the atmospheres, by turns haunting, comforting, placid, dancing, of the outer settings, are exquisitely rendered. As usual Britten uses all sorts of clever and arresting techniques, the lilting string chords in the Pastoral, the echoing horn in the Nocturne, the semitone infection in the Elegy shifting the key from major to minor, the vocal repetition in the Dirge against the sinister string Fugue, the hunting horn in the Rondo hymn straight out of Mozart’s playbook and the string sustains in the Sonnet as we drift off to sleep, (not literally of course, and in any event, BG’s off stage Epilogue reprise would soon wake you up).
I see that Australian-British conductor Jessica Cottis played the French horn and trumpet in her youth which perhaps explains her confident way with the Serenade. I intend no offence but, physically, there isn’t much to Ms Cottis, I estimate 3 of her to 1 Tourist. She has a heck of a presence on the podium though. The ECO numbers on the night may only have maxed out in the Stravinsky, but Jessica Cottis teased out plenty of energy and power when required in this and in the rather more phlegmatic Ravel. I see she has had a couple of recent chamber operatic gigs with the Royal Opera House for Mamzer and The Monstrous Child and has appeared as a regular guest conductor after roles as Assistant at the BBC Scottish SO and Sydney SO under Ashkenazy. On the strength of these interpretations if I where looking for fresh musical leadership I would give her a job.
My last exposure to Le tombeau de Couperin was from Angela Hewitt in the solo piano version at the RFH with MSBD and MSBDD. No review on these pages as, thanks to collective misunderstanding, we managed to miss the star turn, Bach’s Partita No 4, which was, to saw the least, bloody annoying. Still the Ravel was superb and MSBDD was particularly chuffed, this being one of his favourite pieces. Now Ravel was a dab hand at lushly orchestrating other composers’ piano works but for his own he was a little more restrained. That isn’t to say that LTDC isn’t brimful of “colour”, that being the standard word to describe Ravel’s gorgeous ideas, just that you can feel the sombre tones which come from the work’s inspiration as a memorial to the close friends Ravel had lost in the Great War. This version of LTDC takes four of the piano’s six movements: the Prelude, where the traces of harpsichord ornamentation, this was after all inspired by the Baroque harpsichord genius Francois Couperin, is most apparent in strings and oboe; the Forlane, a Venetian dance which the Pope at the time had tried to re-introduce to replace the smutty tango, (is there no end to Catholic sex guilt), but which Ravel spices up with some dissonant notes; a courtly Menuet that goes a bit Scottish jig and ends up with a bit of that Ravelian jazz vibe; and finally a Rigaudon which is a medieval Provencal dance with central processional. The whole piece gives woodwind and, especially, brass a good workout which the respective members of the ECO seemed to thoroughly enjoy. I don’t have a recording of this. Clearly I should.
Apparently Henry Purcell composed over 250 songs and vocal works in his short 36 year life with three volumes being published posthumously as Orpheus Britannicus. BB, like so many subsequent British composers, loved HP, as would anyone in their right mind. Indeed they have a lot in common: inventive harmony, matchless word painting and transparent and direct melody in their music for voice. BB, along with Michael Tippett, was instrumental in bringing the near forgotten HP back into the mainstream, in part through settings of songs from the OB volumes. HP had only provided figured bass lines as accompaniment to the vocal parts but that is all BB needed, along with his preferred chamber orchestral forces, to bring the songs to life. Peter Pears, in editing the vocal lines, foregoes any frilly ornamentation and together the lads created some cracking numbers, modest in sound even if the lyrics are a bit British bulldog patriotic. It doesn’t look like they crop up on the Last Night of the Proms. They should. I see that BB himself writing about his and PP’s arrangements hoped to capture “something of that mixture of clarity, brilliance, tenderness and strangeness which shines out in all of Purcell’s music“. Could just as easily have been his own manifesto.
Having literally changed the course of music with those ballets Stravinsky, and Diaghilev as the promoter needed to come up with a new trick after the War. Diaghilev, in yet another inspired move, presented IS with a collection of music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, he of the Stabat Mater, (and some criminally ignored operas and unrecorded orchestral pieces), and a book of stories about the stock commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella, or wife-beater and all round yob Mr Punch to us Brits. (BTW Pergolesi, like Purcell died way too young, though he only managed to get to the very rock’n’roll age of 26). From this IS conjured up the ballet Pulcinella which premiered in Paris in 1920 conducted by maestro Ernst Ansermet with choreography by Leonid Massine and designs by some bloke named Pablo Picasso. And so began IS’s neo-classical phase. Oh yessss.
The suite, written in 1922 and subsequently revised, (as IS was wont to do). is scored for chamber orchestra like the full ballet but the vocal parts are dumped and the material is condensed into 8 movements. I have recordings of the full ballet from Abbado and the LSO and Marriner and the ASMF, (unsurprisingly, given its genesis, Baroque specialists love having a go at this). In this performance Jessica Cottis and the ECO trod a nice line between the kind of crisp, HIP influenced, neo-classical Stravinsky now commonplace and the older, lusher, vibrato-ey style, though it didn’t quite make enough off the off-kilter chords and bouncy rhythms, after all most of the movements are based on dances. This is core repertoire for the ECO and it shows.
Next up from the ECO at Cadogan Hall on April 16th a brighter affair, the Mendelssohn VC with some Schubert, Suk and the cinematic Bartok Divertimento, led by the, er, ECO leader Stephanie Gonley and then. on May 22nd, some Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, from the other end of his neo-classical period. Looking forward to the former concert but will miss the latter. Clashes with the Stockhausen Donnerstag aus Licht. What have I let myself in for.