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Reviews

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Britten and Dowland: lutes, losses and laments at Wigmore Hall

'Of chord and cassiawood is the lute compounded;/ Within it lie ancient melodies'.

Allan Clayton sings Dowland and Britten at Wigmore Hall

Above: Allan Clayton (tenor)

Photo credit: Sam Canetty-Clarke

 

Arthur Waley’s translation of ‘The Old Lute’ by the ancient Chinese poet Po Chü-i (772-846), which was set by Benjamin Britten in his 1957 cycle, Songs from the Chinese, is a perfect metaphor for the composer’s quest to re-define and rejuvenate English music by re-connecting with the great English composers of the past - a quest which was revived during this recital by tenor Allan Clayton, guitarist Sean Shibe, viola player Timothy Ridout and pianist James Baillieu, continuing Wigmore Hall’s Britten Series.

Much has been written of the influence of Purcell on Britten, not least by the composer himself, particularly with regard to his approach to word-setting, but of no less significance on the development of Britten’s compositional voice was the music of John Dowland. Moreover, from the 1950s Peter Pears and Julian Bream reintroduced Dowland to the listening public in Britain and overseas; in 1963 the Aldeburgh Festival was devoted to the 400th anniversary of Dowland’s birth.

Superficially, one notices a fascination shared by the two composers with images of sleep, the night and death, but, more significantly, during the Elizabethan period were established vocal traditions of musical and textual rhetoric of which Britten was a natural inheritor. Such traditions are nowhere more powerfully crystallised than in the Elizabethan lute song, the expressive idiom of which cohered potent musical gestures with stylised texts and literary codes.

And, it was this ‘lost world of the lute song’ that Clayton and Shibe - the guitarist attired in striking Jacobean doublet and ruff - revived in a sequence of preludes and songs from Dowland’s F irst Booke of Songs or Ayres (1597). The musicians were both seated, there was no undue formality, and the opening Praeludium (included on Shibe’s acclaimed 2018 disc, Dreams & Fancies ) delicately slipped segue into ‘Come again, sweet love doth know invite’. Clayton’s tenor was light and airy, subtly picking out selected words and nuances - “I sit, I sigh, I weep, I faint, I die” first swelled with urgency, then, when repeated, retreated to a floating whisper - above Shibe’s pristinely elaborate polyphonic accompaniment. There was a freedom in the tenor’s manner: in latter stanzas melodic decorations and small variants were introduced, somewhat in the manner of a folksong.

‘Away with these self-loving lads’ was notable for the naturalness of Clayton’s delivery and the sweetness of the vocal tone. The programmed ‘Sleep, wayward thoughts’ was replaced by another unidentified instrumental prelude to the final song in the sequence, ‘Come, heavy sleep’, the twentieth and final song from Dowland’s book of ayres, in which the lute, by turns expansive then secretive, complemented the voice’s weary, melancholy wrestling with life’s cares.

These songs were beautifully presented, with ease and clarity. I missed, however, that certain undercurrent of tension that send frissons through the deceptively artless utterances. Such lute songs were undoubtedly sung in the sort of intimate social and domestic setting that Clayton and Shibe seemed inclined to reproduce here, and were also perhaps played in solitude, the lone singer-lutenist the only listener. But, within their professions of courtly love - the male lover addressing an indifferent or disdainful mistress - the songs couch political and courtly themes, and they would have been heard too in aristocratic contexts: petitions to Queen Elizabeth I for favour and advancement, or forgiveness, conveyed through a language of love that codifies loyalty and ambition. Clayton’s relaxed delivery and crooning quality did not do full justice to the artifice and artfulness of the songs. His tendency to elide words - as at the start of ‘Come away’, where the rest in the vocal line, respecting the comma in the text, was over-ridden by a sustained legato - created a casualness which beguiled the listener’s ear but which neglected the sharpness, wit and oratory of the texts.

In his Earl of Somerset Masque (1614), Thomas Campion spoke of the emotive power of such musico-verbal rhetoric: “Happy is hee whose words can move./ Yet sweet Notes help perswasion./ Mixe your words with Musicke then./ That they the more may enter.” We certainly find such rhetoric in the Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex in Britten’s 1953 opera, Gloriana, the text of which layers words by the Earl himself, Robert Devereux, with those of a madrigal by John Wilbye: “Happy we he could finish forth his fate/ In some unhaunted desert, most obscure/ From all societies, from love and hate/ Of worldly folk.” It was made popular by Pears and Bream; in 1957, the latter arranged the original harp and muted strings accompaniment for guitar and voice, and I assume that this is what we heard here.

Sean-Shibe Kaupo-Kikkas.jpg Sean Shibe (guitar). Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.

Clayton powerfully conjured the “dream, a mood, an air/ To spirit us both away” which Elizabeth requests from her disgraced lover in the final act of the opera. While, taken out of its dramatic context, the song’s pathos may have been diminished, in fact time and place seemed irrelevant as the vocal line expanded freely, ebbing and flowing, blossoming in melismatic wistfulness: “Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;/ In contemporary spending all his days.” Points of rhythmic repose, as when Essex’s sighing repetitions embody his dream that he might then “sleep secure”, merely confirmed the transitory and illusory nature of his hopes which dissolved into nothingness at the close of the song.

The spirit of the ‘antique’ continued in Britten’s Songs from the Chinese which were composed for Pears and Bream and performed at the Aldeburgh Festival on 17th June 1958. In ‘The Big Chariot’, a more robust vocal tone and fuller vibrato, aided by the rhythmic vigour of the guitar’s weaving counterpoint, and enhanced further by emphatic textual repetitions, conveyed the massive size and weight of the chariot and thus the suffering it causes:You'll be stifled with dust, be stifled with dust,” sang Clayton, his tenor seeming to bend low under the heaviness of his burden, before flowering in elaborate melismatic sadness: “Don’t think about the sorrows of the world.”

The closing couplet of ‘The Old Lute’ was especially powerful. The drooping melancholy of the falling thirds that close many of the vocal lines, intimating the sad decay of the old lute’s music, Clayton’s question was more declamatory: “How did it come to be neglected so?” The guitar’s response was disconcerting. Rapid, upwards-sweeping arpeggios presented the answer: what the poet calls the ‘barbarous’ noise of the new instruments, “the Ch’iang flute and the zither of Ch’in”, has turned the musical world, quite literally, upside down.

In ‘The Autumn Wind’ and ‘The Herd-Boy’ the visual aspects of the text - the strengthening breeze, the lilt of the ox’s tread - were enchantingly conveyed by the accompaniment, as Clayton thoughtfully heightened the text: “I think of my lovely lady, I never can forget”. The textual stresses of ‘Depression’, with its heavy spondaic beat, were brilliantly imitated by Shibe who exploited Britten’s fading gestures to complement the singer whose “body sinks to decay”. Finally came ‘Dance Song’, with its strange, ambiguous text and unsettling blend of vivacity and pain; it seems to lament the loss of the mythical ‘lin’, hunted to extinction. Waley translates ‘lin’ as ‘unicorn’ and initially the voice presents fanfare-like motifs, “The unicorn's hoofs!”; but, with every repetition of “Alas for the unicorn” Clayton’s voice rose in emotional pitch, increasingly frequent glissandi eventually climaxing in a cry of anguish for lost love, lost youth, lost beauty … and lost music.

Timothy+Ridout Kaupo+Kikkas.jpgTimothy Ridout (viola). Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.

The central items of the recital saw the voice fall silent, and the past re-born through instrumental contemplation. Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland was premiered by viola player William Primrose at the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival with the composer himself at the keyboard. Here, Timothy Ridout and James Baillieu captured the ceremony and grace of the pavan, drawn from Dowland’s ‘If my complaint could passions move’ (which is not heard in the viola until after the variations have been presented), while exploiting the colours and irregularities of those variations to the full. Ridout’s tone was by turns beautifully deep and sonorous, then more gracious, always refined. Powerful pizzicato resounded, propelled by Baillieu’s flowing sweeps. The absence of vibrato at the close again evoked the distance of past worlds.

Britten returned to Dowland, thirteen years after Lachrymae in his Nocturnal for solo guitar, which is loosely based upon ‘Come, heavy sleep’. In a mesmerising performance that was, paradoxically, both introspective and deeply communicative, Shibe seemed to venture ‘inside’ the music itself, as the semitonal conflicts wrought themselves into ever greater complexities before releasing their knots in tentative melodic fragments. Britten’s resourcefulness with small means is astonishing but Shibe’s performance held the Wigmore Hall audience spellbound. Cradling his instrument, head bent low, the Scottish-Japanese guitarist put me in mind of Dr John Dee: for this was musical magick, as if the spirit of those Elizabethan alchemists had returned to play upon our ears and hearts and minds - mesmerising us with terrifyingly quiet pianissimos, the player almost lost in improvisatory meditations which were broken by surprising, frightening declamations of eloquence and eeriness. The long-for statement of the song’s theme offered little consolation, finally fragmenting into absence and echoing in its silence John Donne’s account, in his Sermons, of the depression and human ingloriousness that serve as a foil to the glory of heaven: ‘an extraordinary sadnesse, a predominant melancholy, a faintnesse of heart, a chearlesnesse, a joylesnesse of spirit.’

Clayton returned to the platform with Baillieu to perform the three songs that Britten composed as incidental music for Ronald Duncan’s 1945 play, This Way to the Tomb. I felt that the final item, Britten’s 1953 song-cycle Winter Words, setting eight songs by Thomas Hardy, found Clayton reach an expressive peak. Here there was real dynamism, the texts both poetic and dramatic: the poems may not form a continuous narrative but the singer’s voice can unite the disparate happenings into an intelligible whole, and so create a sense of a discourse on time. For, there is a central ‘theme’, the loss of childlike innocence as adult consciousness develops, and Clayton was able to suggest a persona looking back at his youth in his later years.

Sentimentality was kept at bay in ‘At Day-Close in November’, by the briskness of the piano’s upward flourishes which conveyed the impetuous and passionate feeling which is present in the poem, and perhaps also suggested the impatient pitching to and fro of the pine branches; and by the vigour with which Clayton’s poet-speaker relived an event from his past, “I set every tree in my June time”. In ‘Midnight on the Great Western (The Journeying Boy)’, the tenor imbued his reflections on the lonely child who is travelling in a third-class railway carriage, towards an unknown destination, with compassion and intensity, as Baillieu’s imitative whistle and steam gradually pushed forward, creating accumulating motion, energy and unease.

‘Wagtail and Baby’ had a gentle, conversational air, while ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial (or The Tenor Man’s Story) was beautifully eloquent and poignant. Baillieu was a mercurial voice in ‘At the Railway Station, Upway (or The Convict and the Boy with the Violin)’, capturing the strangeness of the constable’s smile as the boy’s fiddle “began to twang” and the convict’s ironic jingle rang out with guttural grimness, and a searing crescendo that was a pained vocal grimace: “This life so free/Is the thing for me.” In the final song, ‘Before Life and After’, the piano’s repeated chords seemed indifferent to the singer’s distress, progressing forwards, not allowing the voice to linger meditatively. In the final stanza Clayton’s ever more insistent reflections on loss culminated in a question that seemed both despairing and terrified - “How long, how long” before “nescience shall be reaffirmed”? The open vowel was a cry of hopelessness.

To conclude the four musicians assembled together on stage, and Britten’s arrangement of ‘I wonder as I wander’ - the sparse inter-verse commentary shared in turn by viola, guitar, piano - spirited us to past musical worlds: in the words of Hardy, “A Time There Was …”

Claire Seymour

Allan Clayton (tenor) Timothy Ridout (viola), Sean Shibe (guitar), James Baillieu (piano)

Dowland : Praeludium, ‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’, ‘Away with these self-loving lads’, ‘Come, heavy sleep’; Britten: The Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex from Gloriana Op.53, Songs from the Chinese Op.58, Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland Op.48, Nocturnal after John Dowland Op.70, This Way to the Tomb (‘Evening’, ‘Morning’, ‘Night’), Winter Words Op.52

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 4th January 2020.

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