On this Island, Op.11
Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22
The Poet’s Echo, Op.76
Folksong arrangements: Early one morning; Sally in our alley; Fileuse; I wonder as I wander; The brisk young widow; Il est quelqu’un sur terre; The trees they grow so high; The crocodile
Joan Rodgers & Elizabeth Watts (sopranos), Allan Clayton (tenor), Gerald Finley (baritone) and Julius Drake & Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 2 December, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Benjamin Britten’s febrile and fertile relationship with poetry was honoured in this marathon and luxuriously casted recital. The composer’s uncanny ability to illuminate words resulted in some of his most startling music, emotionally and technically exposed, and bursting with expressive opportunities for performers.
Britten slapped down his calling-card with the early and brattishly brilliant group of Auden settings, On this Island (1937), full of Stravinskian bravura and baroque aspiration. Elizabeth Watts’s shining soprano unfolded the celebratory fanfares of ‘Let the florid music praise!’ with infectious delight, then reducing her brightness to a pale ‘white’ sound for the quiet dread that drifts through ‘Now the leaves are falling fast’. I’d have preferred a less assertive approach to ‘Nocturne’, which didn’t quite connect with the gravity of the text and its chaconne-like setting, but she and Julius Drake dealt skilfully with the awkward, over-jaunty 1930s’ glamour of ‘As it is, plenty’.
It was quite a wrench from that to the confrontational gloom of Song and Proverbs of William Blake (1965). The shadow of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for whom this cycle was written, inevitably hovers in the wings, and there were occasional subliminal and deferential nods in his direction in Gerald Finley’s searching performance, especially in subtle thickenings of timbre and weightings of phrase. Finley projected the spirit of Britten’s settings with a conversational blend of precision and freedom, and made all the potent musical images (of which Britten was a consummate master) make their mark, such as the displacement of piano and voice in ‘London’ or the withering depression in ‘A Poison Tree’. Drake was consummate with the piano’s role, tactfully retreating for the antiphon-like ‘Proverbs’ and delivering a perfectly judged flicker of consolation at the close of ‘Every Night and Every Morn’.
Such a powerful performance of this bleakly visionary work would have been enough for one evening, but it was easily equalled by Allan Clayton’s and Malcolm Martineau’s ecstatic performance of Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), as remarkable for Clayton’s finely geared vocal shading, floating line and passionate heroics as for Martineau’s acute understanding of the psychology of these complex love-poems. People still recall Britten’s inspirational ability to ‘talk’ through his piano-playing, and there was that same spirit of instant connection in from Martineau.
He was on the same top form in The Poet’s Echo (also 1965), Joan Rodgers wrapping up Pushkin’s artistic frustration in her veiled soprano. The songs are about the absence of response from the thing that triggers creative passion. Rodgers, singing with a wonderfully withdrawn authority, played down the songs’ histrionic potential, and she was superbly in control of the beauties of ‘The nightingale and the rose’.
All six artists took turns in Britten’s prodigiously inventive folksong recreations, Watts summoning up a credible Suffolk accent in ‘The brisk young widow’, Clayton and Martineau heart-breaking in ‘The trees they grow so high’, Rodgers painfully direct in the two French settings (‘Spinster’ and ‘There is someone in the world’), with Finley and Drake superb in the shaggy-dog story of ‘The crocodile’, complete with its creaking modulations.