Benjamin Britten: In Memoriam – Orchestral Songs

Les Illuminations, Op.18
Phaedra, Op.93
Lachrymae for viola and strings, Op.48a
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op.31

Lisa Milne (soprano)

Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)

Lawrence Power (viola)

Mark Padmore (tenor) & Richard Watkins (horn)

Nash Ensemble
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 4 December, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

“Les Illuminations” is the earliest of tonight’s works and the writing for string orchestra is extra-ordinary. In its solemn introduction, we hear a fanfare – but there are no trumpets! The fanfare is for strings. It’s quite an eerie sound, promising dark adventure, suggesting things forbidden. An original and probing musical mind was at work here, pushing and pulling at the instruments – and taxing their players.

The strings of the Nash Ensemble were exemplary – the stars of the evening. Their attack was unfailingly direct and keenly rhythmic. Whatever the speed of the music, a vital energy throbbed. Splendidly, they did not run away from the unconventional either, meeting the ‘oddness’ of many sounds full on and presenting us with their challenge. Credit is due to Edward Gardner, presiding over this fearless display.

After a wobbly start, Lisa Milne sang carefully and clear-lined, ever mindful of the impulsive, idiosyncratic French text. Her delivery – a mite over-careful – ably conveyed the underlying sensuousness of both music and text.

The text of “Phaedra” is Lowell’s translation from Racine. Janet Baker gave the first performance in the year when Britten died, 1976. Here we have a man in his sixties, his heart and therefore his life at risk. The musical writing – in cantata-like arias and recitatives – is sober, spare and sombre. Catherine Wyn-Rogers conveyed Britten’s grave passion admirably. Her rich emotional reticence came close to caressing the notion of dying, with detachment. Her fine performance was most solemnly accompanied.

Lachrymae impressed too. Britten made this string accompaniment version (it was originally viola and piano) for Cecil Aronowitz. I find the notion of the work – ‘reflections’ on a song of Dowland’s – rather more moving than the work itself, but Lawrence Power’s impassive command over this eloquent piece was softly restrained, if a little lacking in drama.

In “Serenade”, Richard Watkins played his horn extremely carefully, yet ably conveyed the mood of shadows lengthening into the dusk. Ian Bostridge was indisposed; Mark Padmore (who had earlier given a lunchtime recital of Britten) took his place. He sang intelligently in a voice of distilled tone, pure and lucid, but somewhat thin. His ‘Pastoral’ was pleasing, gentle and soothing. He projected himself with larger force and impact in ‘Nocturne’, just about. The ‘Elegy’ was very fine: everyone (Padmore, Watkins, Gardner and the strings) re-created the brooding growth of this miniature masterpiece ominously and dreadfully. Within his own terms of reference, Padmore was suitably loud and horribly impassioned when telling us that the worm had “found out thy bed”. The ‘Dirge’ was outstanding – in both performance and vision. Gardner and the strings took over, with Padmore becoming an exuberant associate rather than a spotlit soloist. They played it briskly and spikily, turning it into something biting and prickly, vibrantly Gothic and macabre – a swirling dance of death, recalling the close of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”. The ‘Hymn’ was a delicious bon-bon after such astringency. Its softness suited Padmore well. The ‘Sonnet’ – difficult to pull off – hints at darker emotions than a ‘serenade’ can suitably bear. Padmore and the strings did not shirk this dilemma; nor did they resolve it.

This commemorative tribute to the genius of Benjamin Britten’s varied output displayed gleaming sincerity and lasting respect from these performers.

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