07 Dec 2012

Britten’s Lachrymae at Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble’s final contribution to the Wigmore Hall’s Britten centenary series, ‘Before Life and After’, presented works for soloists and strings.

Composed for its dedicatee, William Primrose, who premiered the work at the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival, Lachrymae once again occupied Britten in the final months of his life, when he returned to the work in order to arrange the original piano accompaniment for string ensemble, charging the relationship between soloist and accompanists with increased tension and concentration.

The viola was Britten’s own instrument and so often — as in the passacaglia in Peter Grimes, or the second movement of the two Portraits for strings, written when he was just 17 years old, or the Third String Quartet, composed shortly before his death — is seems to be the instrument through which he speaks most personally. In Lachrymae, inspired by Dowland’s melancholy song ‘If my complaints could passions move’, Britten’s own voice converses discursively with voices from the past, creating an ambience of ambiguity and mystery.

Soloist Lawrence Power conveyed the searching hesitancy of the melodic line with probing eloquence. Although the opening is tentative — a quotation from Dowland’s song is introduced and submerged in a low-lying register in the accompaniment — Power established his presence and poise, while sustaining the air of expressive mystery. The viola’s fragments of quotation from Dowland, haunting snatches of an archaic sound world, were poignant lyrical utterances when juxtaposed with the uneven, unstable, more modern instrumental fabric.

Martin Brabbins deftly shaped the unfolding exchanges between soloist and players, and within the ensemble, crafting interchanges suggestive of conversation and quotation. There was a sense of distancing and translation: from voice to viola, and from Elizabethan past to modern present. The co-presence of Dowland’s compositional voice and Britten’s idiosyncratic idiom seemed both curious and inevitable, the two held in balance and in alternation throughout.

Brabbins was concerned with the minutiae of the score but also controlled the whole form as the sequence of variations (or ‘Reflections’ as Britten called them) progressed towards the full revelation of its source. From the shadowy opening of the Lento, with its muffled tremolos and muted una corda playing, the piece built in intensity. The approach to the interruption of this evolution by the viola’s statement of the Lachrymae of the title, Dowland’s Flow My tears’, in Reflection 6 was electric; and Brabbins’ emphasis on the vivid textural contrasts, complemented by the viola’s direct utterance, made for a powerful and moving climax.

Britten’s innate and renowned sensitivity to words can seem wasted on Rimbaud’s somewhat self-indulgent poetry, which expresses the nineteen-year-old Frenchman’s sense of excitement when faced with the thrilling potential of modernity and new frontiers, and which the composer set in the instrumental song cycle, Les Illuminations. Britten himself was only 26 at the time of composition, but it is clear that he already had an ear for French idioms and rhythm. And, this was emphasised further by soprano Sandrine Piau’s beautiful, understated enunciation of her native language, highlighting by turns the languid repose and racy energy of the verse.

This was a commanding, polished performance, one which retained the sensuality of Rimbaud’s animated, colourful outpouring but which also maintained a certain distance, clarity and composure. ‘Villes’ was light and airy, Piau momentary blossoming when the poet-speaker exalts: “Old craters, encircled by colossi and palms of copper, roar melodiously in the fires”. The string lines and voice are very much of equal import, the latter often melodically subordinate to the on-going instrumental discourse; Brabbins and the players of the Nash Ensemble were firmly focused, alert to the instrumental arguments and colourings which embrace the voice. The violins’ dance-like melodies in ‘Antique’ were wonderfully undulating and sinuous, while the march-like tune in ‘Royauté’ had real rhythmic bite.

In the latter, Piau revealed her wit and humour; but she was equally at home with the more prosaic recitative of ‘Phrase’, producing an incredible gracefulness at the very top of her register, and dancing weightlessly through the glissandi, accompanied by delicate string harmonics. The virtuosic twirls and runs of ‘Marine’, “tourillons, tourillons’, and the constant and surprising shifts of mood, presented no difficulties. After the drolleries of the opening of ‘Parade’, Piau’s gleaming rich sound bloomed in the ecstatic ‘final’ phrase: “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.” (“I alone hold the key to this savage parade!” Her ability to convey diverse nuances in different contexts was strongly evident here: this phrase appears in both the opening ‘Fanfare’ and the ‘Interlude’ but Piau drew completely different meanings from the phrase through tone and articulation. This was a fresh and direct performance, which received a well-deserved rapturous reception.

Fittingly, for the work received its world premiere in the Wigmore Hall in 1943, the concert concluded with the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. This was an almost overwhelmingly intense rendering, both soloists — tenor John Mark Ainsley and horn player Richard Watkins — performing from memory. Ainsley was movingly expressive and eloquent; but, for me Watkins was the star of the whole evening, every note intelligently conceived and produced with supreme technical mastery, the considerable challenges of Britten’s writing for the natural horn despatched effortlessly. In the opening ‘Prologue’, Watkins manipulated the inherent out-of-tuneness of the instrument to marvellous effect. Throughout the work his phrasing was beautifully judged, nowhere more so than in the haunting echoes of ‘Nocturne’. Elsewhere his golden legato and glowing tone simply took my breath away.

Ainsley’s flexible, relaxed opening phrase in ‘Pastoral’ — rounded, perfectly placed and beautifully poised — set the bar for the rest of his performance. ‘Nocturne’ was elegant but unfussy, the dialogue between voice and horn. In the extended horn preface and postlude of ‘Elegy’ Watkins’ eerily descending semitones powerfully embodied the sense of sin which Blake’s troubling verse obliquely conveys. The darkness which settled over this number carried to ‘Dirge’, as Ainsley’s insistent, increasingly fearful tone brought the shadows of nightmare into the hall, the high keening of the tenor’s melody reiterating the mocking semitone of the ‘Elegy’, extending its terrible influence. The tension was released by the fleet hunting calls and cascading scales of ‘Hymn’, a setting of Ben Jonson’s ‘Hymn to Diana’, goddess of the moon and of the hunt. After a virtuousic cadenza at the close of this movemenr, Watkins unobstrusively left the stage; Ainsley delivered a silky if not soothing performance of Keats’ “O soft embalmer of the still midnight”. Shades of unease were latent in the high Ds of the final line, “And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul”, intimating the ultimate ‘rest’, and confirming that the disturbing dreams of the earlier movements had not fully been banished.

The Nash Ensemble strings were superb throughout, and Brabbins tempi were unfailingly well-judged. If I were to admit to one small misgiving it would be that the Epilogue, delivered by Watkins from the gallery at the back of the Hall, seemed to have too much presence, too much solidity. A more diffuse, ethereal quality — one that might have been achieved if Watkins had played off-stage, perhaps with door ajar, behind the platform — would have sustained the enduring ghostliness that lingered in so many of the movements. But, this complaint seems ungenerous when we were treated to such a wonderful evening of music-making.

Claire Seymour

Sandrine Piau: soprano; John Mark Ainsley: tenor; Richard Watkins: horn; Lawrence Power: viola; Martyn Brabbins: conductor; Nash Ensemble.

Lachrymae for solo viola and strings Op.48a; Les Illuminations Op.18; Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 4 December 2012.