09 Nov 2013

Barbican Britten

The mantle of tenor Peter Pears’ legacy hung heavily over his immediate ‘successors’, as they performed music that had been composed by Benjamin Britten for the man to whom he avowed, ‘I write every note with your heavenly voice in my head’.

However, Robert Tear, John Vickers, Philip Langridge and others established themselves as worthy and independent heirs, forging interpretations which were original, insightful and distinctive. Today we are fortunate to have a stellar crop of tenors who bring unique and fresh insights to Britten’s music, but it is a rare combination of cerebral insight and visceral but controlled passion which characterises Ian Bostridge’s responses and which makes his performances so captivating.

Written for the 1936 Norwich Festival, Britten’s orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers certainly demands of its soloist both intellectual perspicacity and emotional immersion, two erudite, philosophical poems by W.H. Auden — Britten’s perennial collaborator during the 1930s — framing three energised Anglo-Saxon texts, the latter modernised by Auden. As Britten anticipated, the first performance, by the LPO and soloist Sophie Wyss, was not well-received: superficially the poetry examines man’s relationship with the animal kingdom, but there exists a both a political dimension and a less obvious sexual sub-text which the local audience were slow to perceive or appreciate, Auden’s complex imagery and verbal dexterity proving overly recondite.

This performance by Ian Bostridge, accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Paul Daniel, brought clarity and focus to the superficially obscure poetry, brilliantly conveying the musical structure which unites the diversity of styles required to communicate the varied sentiments of the texts.

In the opening recitative of the ‘Prologue’, marked sempre ad lib., Bostridge’s tone was restrained, perfectly emulating the parsonical mood of the words; the dry orchestral accompaniment facilitated the supremacy of the vocal line. Daniel encouraged the woodwind — who played superbly throughout the evening — in their interjections which contrast with the sustained string chords, casting light on significant lines of text: ‘the poles between which our desire unceasingly is discharged.’ At the image of the ‘extraordinary compulsion of the deluge and earthquake’, Bostridge’s rising minor ninths were deeply poignant, the sustained ppp string chord with trilling side drum and snares surging to an explosive fff.

‘Rats Away!’ is an anonymous medieval text which depicts animals as vermin, the primarily wind-based orchestration and scurrying musical material presenting an unsentimental, hard-edged world.

Bostridge’s virtuosic dexterity was evident in his florid melismatic variant of the opening orchestral gestures; he projected the scalic figure, ‘Rats!’, with clarity and precision combined with cadenza-like energy — aspiring with propulsive vigour towards the climactic, sustained high A — while Daniel drew forth a shrill timbre from the tremolando strings and flutter-tonguing woodwind. A contrasting mood was established in the central section, the voice articulating a sort of invocatory prayer in discourse with a legato solo viola (Clare Finnimore); here, Bostridge shaped the passage with consummate control, incisively accenting the leaping octaves which announce the names of the Evangelists and driving towards the intervallic expansiveness of the climactic phrase, ‘That these names were utter’d in’. The insistent repetitions of the three-note ‘Rats!’ motif in the recapitulation were terrifyingly dynamic, and the tenor’s final throw-away ‘Amen’, dropping from high decorative exclamations to a low D, after a laden pause, sardonically emphasised the satirical nature of the religious statements in the text — a cynicism which was further confirmed by the motivic continuations of the unison strings, which Daniel guided into ambiguous dissolution.

In ‘Messalina’ we move from public to private domains, as the singer mourns the loss of his pet monkey. Bostridge’s drooping lament, ‘Ay, ay me, alas, heigh ho!’, richly resonated with the hollowness of the divided strings’ opening 5ths, the singer’s glissandi falling 7ths both musically precise and ardently expressive. The narrative lines, ‘Thus doth Messalina go/ Up and down the house a-cry’, possessed a folk-like naivety, as the solo woodwind melodies intertwined with the voice. The elaborate, melismatic cries of ‘Fie!’ were electrifying: Bostridge was not afraid to push his voice to the limits through the tumbling major/minor thirds, the quiet registral expanse of soaring molto espressivo e vibrato strings above deep tuba and trombone expressed both the wide scope of emotions experienced and the chasm of grief. The tenor’s stabbing crotchets, ‘Fie!’, dissipated into despair and some beautiful solos from horn, bassoon and alto saxophone, the latter lyrically played by Christian Forshaw, led us without pause into Britten’s setting of Thomas Ravenscroft’s ‘Dance of Death’ — ‘Hawking for the Partridge’.

The tenor’s initial roll call of predators — ‘Beauty, Timble, Trover, Damsel’ — was savage, the tight tarantella rhythm a parody of the traditional hunting song. Bostridge whistled through his teeth, the repeated rising 9th, ‘Whurrrrret!’, penetrating and discomforting; indeed, the sense of a self-gratifying pleasure in violence is given an ominous twist in the subsequent passage, where the isolation and repetition of the words ‘Travel Jew’ portentously equates the ritual killing of animals with the ‘Jew-hunting’ perpetrated by Nazi Germany — as ever, Bostridge was alert to every nuance and inference of the text, and to the musical opportunities for its expression. Daniel drew forth the multitude of onomatopoeic motifs — the woodwinds’ staccato flurry of feathers, the horn’s rasping glissandi of alarm — creating a mood of terror and hysteria.

The conductor sustained the insistent rhythms of the ‘Dance of Death’ in the concluding ‘Epilogue and Funeral March’; the ostinato xylophone soullessly suggested man’s inability to break out of the endless cycle of cruelty and despair. This movement possesses a disturbing tension and ambiguity, and Bostridge and Daniel made much of the contrasts between Auden’s two stanzas, exploiting Britten’s interjections and imitative sounds.

Auden’s first stanza describes the traditional self-assurance of man, who pities the animals’ undirected innocence and whose own love, the driving power which motivates the individual, is tempered by reason. However, in the second stanza Auden proposes a ‘modern’ view of a love which leads to guilt and self-regard, adapting lines from Lenin to ask us to imagine a man who has modified his ‘southern gestures’ and makes it his ambition only ‘To hunger, work illegally,/ And be anonymous?’

Bostridge’s extended melisma, contrasting powerfully with the composure of the preceding syllabic lines, was finely crafted: initially restrained — recalling the opening of the ‘Prologue’ — then flowering exquisitely into an impassioned arioso. In the concluding funeral march, Daniel fashioned a controlled disintegration, as the bass faded away leaving hard col legno and pizzicato strings to offer the final inconclusive, pessimistic utterances.

Elsewhere in the programme the prodigious talents of the Britten Sinfonia — individually and collectively — were much on display. A pacy reading of Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor allowed the strings to demonstrate their responsive appreciation of the composer’s rhythmic vitality and impulsiveness, as well as their feeling for colour and dynamic range. Daniel’s flexible, free direction suggested that he is a dancer manqué, so lithe and unconstrained were his gestures.

Young pianist, Lara Melda — the winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2010 — was a dazzling soloist in Britten’s Young Apollo (for piano, string quartet and string orchestra), sparkling through the rising scales in scintillating fashion above gleaming, brilliant strings. Her reading was full of the bright optimism of youth; fittingly, for the work was first performed in Toronto in 1939 with the 25-year-old composer himself at the keyboard.

Tippett’s Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli was engagingly theatrical, the textures rich and the elaborate ornamentations lavishly conveyed. Soloists Thomas Gould (violin), Miranda Dale (violin) and Caroline Dearnley (cello) were superb, Gould in particular galvanising all the instrumentalists to offer an uplifting, deeply committed performance.

Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes bears the sub-title ‘A Time There Was’ — an allusion to Thomas Hardy’s Winter Words — and the inscription, ‘lovingly and reverently dedicate to the memory of Percy Grainger’. At first glance, it might be felt that Britten and Grainger have little in common, but a penetratingly creative engagement with English folk-song links the two disparate personalities, and in this performance Daniel demonstrated a discerning appreciation of the relationship between the simple, straightforward folk-song melodies and the, at times, disruptive accompaniments. The final movement, a setting of ‘Lord Melbourne’ which was collected by Grainger, was imbued with a draining dejection, redolent of Hardy’s verse.

Claire Seymour

‘Barbican Britten’ continues until 24th November — see www.barbican.org.uk for further details.

Programme and performers:

Henry Purcell, arr. Benjamin Britten, Chacony in G Minor; Benjamin Britten, Young Apollo Op.16; Michael Tippett,Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli; Benjamin Britten, Our Hunting Fathers, Op.8; Benjamin Britten, Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was). Ian Bostridge, tenor; Lara Melda, piano; Paul Daniel, conductor; Britten Sinfonia. Barbican Centre, London, Friday 8th November 2013.