Britten Centenary Concert at Wigmore Hall – Song-Cycles & Cabaret Songs

Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op.61
Cabaret songs
Who are these children?, Op.84
I will give my love an apple; At the mid hour of night

Mark Padmore (tenor), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 3 December, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)As part of Wigmore Hall’s marking of Benjamin Britten’s forthcoming centenary year, this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime concert provided an opportunity to sample the composer’s late song-cycles given in the company of music that reveals his lighter side.

Mark Padmore. Photograph: Marco BorggreveMark Padmore is a formidable interpreter of Britten’s music. Hölderlin-Fragmente is a difficult proposition, both technically and interpretatively, but he sang the settings with great conviction. He was helped considerably by Malcolm Martineau, who due to Britten’s writing was often operating in a different tonal sphere, but who held the contrapuntal melodies with great poise. The Hölderlin cycle is not as well known, due possibly to a combination of its German language and difficult subject-matter, but the songs are as dramatic as anything within his output. The jagged outlines of ‘Menschenbeifall’, the undiluted purity of ‘Sokrates und Alicibiades’ and the power of ‘Die Linien des Lebens’ were all fully exploited. In ‘Hälfte des Lebens’, Padmore deliberately sang underneath the pitch, his flat tone illustrating the florid text of the first verse, which is “trunken von Küssen” (drunken with kissing).

The performance of Who are these children? (1969) was no less dramatic and sets verse by the Perthshire poet William Soutar, and alternates purely Scottish poetry of innocence and charm with much darker English examples, an uneasy balance that leads to ultimately tragic ends. Padmore was unwavering in the darkness, and there was a chill that spread through the third song, ‘Nightmare’, as he sang of howMalcolm Martineau. Photograph:“the branches flowered with children’s eyes, and the dark murderer was a man.” ‘The children’ was equally chilling, with its observation that “the blood of children corrupts the hearts of men”, while Martineau eerily evoked the sound of a Second World War air-raid siren, given in two-part intervals. The child-like songs around these moments of gloom offered chinks of light and were charming in their purity, but these too ultimately descended to futility once the final song, ‘The Auld Aik’, was reached.

Christine Rice. Photograph: Rob MooreComplementing the remarkable intensity of these cycles was the rich tone of Christine Rice in four Cabaret Songs from the late-1930s. As if to stress the contrast of musical material Rice was dressed in vivid red to Padmore’s black, and she acted with charm and wit. ‘Tell me the truth about love’ was especially good, with Auden’s verse raising several chuckles and Britten’s music, written in homage to Cole Porter, understanding his friend’s sense of humour. Martineau was superb, responding to the many and varied changes in emphasis and rhythm with flair and a keen ear.

The two singers took a folksong each, Rice singing ‘I gave my love an apple’, which received its first performance in Wigmore Hall with Peter Pears and Julian Bream in May 1956. Padmore was then restrained in the nocturne ‘At the mid hour of Night’, and then again in a beautiful rendition of the Advent folksong ‘I wonder as I wander’, his purity of line bringing a tear to the eye. The economy of Britten’s setting gives the melody intense emotion, while the single treble-line comments from the piano were conveyed with equal affection by Martineau.

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