Britten Centenary Concert at Wigmore Hall – The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, A Charm of Lullabies, Winter Words

Tit for Tat
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35
A Charm of Lullabies, Op.41
Winter Words, Op.52

Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Robin Tritschler (tenor), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 1 December, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)Despite his commitment to the genre Benjamin Britten wrote few individual songs, preferring collections instead. Each of the concerts in the early stages of Wigmore Hall’s Britten 100 celebrations, of which this was the first devoted to Britten’s output of Art Song, has been neatly tailored. In this case two major works were balanced by shorter, less heavyweight groups of songs. I avoid the term ‘cycle’ as unsuitable because unlike Winterreise or Frauenliebe und -leben, none has a progressive narrative. Winter Words consists of poems united only by a single author, while even the Donne Sonnets are static representations of the poet’s different states of mind, without development or resolution. I would further argue that these groups would not be diminished by their contents being sung in a different order.

The use of different singers for each of the works provided good value and considerable interest in mixing two generations of Britten interpreters. Tit for Tat consists of a selection of texts by Walter De La Mare which Britten wrote in his teens, then assembled and prepared for publication in 1968, the first performance given by the composer and John Shirley-Quirk in the following year. While they reveal little evidence of an individual style, few composers can have demonstrated at so early an age such an understanding of song-writing and so promising an aptitude for it. ‘Silver’ is delightfully descriptive of the sights and sounds of a moonlit night; ‘Tit for Tat’ itself provides musical support for the anti-hunting sarcasm of La Mare’s poem, which clearly evoked shared indignation and sympathy from Britten. Best of all, ‘A song of Enchantment’ conveys the poet’s sense of nostalgia for the moment of inspiration he experienced. Britten finds a quite different musical form for the memory of evening which follows, as nature winds-down into silence and immobility. The last verse is has an uncompromising piano part which brushes aside the hankering for a past lost forever. Marcus Farnsworth’s cleanly-focused baritone, with its inbuilt clarity of enunciation, was somewhat stretched by the wide range of the writing, arguably a weakness of the inexperienced composer.

Malcolm Martineau. Photograph: martineau.infoA Charm of Lullabies (1947) was written for Nancy Evans, first wife of Walter Legge and later to marry Eric Crozier. She shared the title role in the initial Glyndebourne production of The Rape of Lucretia. Ann Murray was an inspired choice to perform the five varied cradle songs. Her voice nowadays needs careful management. In the Burns setting ‘The Highland Balou’ there were uncomfortable moments, some of shrillness, others where the line was interrupted by uneven splodges of tone. She excelled in the setting of A Cradle Song by William Blake, sending the child to sleep at start and finish with a daring pianissimo but also hinting at more sinister things to come. The setting of ‘A charm from The Jealous Lovers’ (Thomas Randolph, 1605-1635) offers a witty take on the lullaby with its fast tempo and pointed command to go to sleep. The mother treats the child’s recalcitrance jokingly by threatening it with various punishments from classical mythology, given tongue-in-cheek by Murray and Malcolm Martineau. Order is restored in the closing song, from The Play of Patient Grissell by Elizabethan poet John Phillip. Here Murray played the dutiful nurse, powerfully declaring divine concern for the child, while in the gentle but intense unaccompanied refrains promising her unreserved commitment. Murray’s ability to create character out of words and music is very much surviving.

Britten had witnessed the atrocities committed by the Nazis when he visited Germany shortly after the cessation of hostilities in 1945. No doubt shaken and disgusted by the experience, he responded to John Donne’s highly personal poems and blinding imagery with music which spares its listeners little; only ‘Since she whom I lov’d’ with its cushion of diatonic chords, offers any relief from the prevailing tone of pain and fearfulness. Even there the vocal line presses on relentlessly and is uncomfortably free of sustained lyricism. Elsewhere declamation reigns virtually uncontested. While Peter Pears was the singer whom Britten had in mind in writing all his songs for tenor, it was a unique voice without parallel today and in practice the Donne Sonnets and Winter Words demand two different types of voice, the one requiring heroic declamation, the other the skill of communicating lyrically and intimately.

John Mark Ainsley was the heavyweight of the two tenors. From the exposed opening note of the first of the Donne settings, he rose to the challenge of conveying the agonies of guilt, sin, repentance and fear of the approaching Day of Judgement. The voice is fuller than that of Pears but possesses a similarly doleful sound in that area of the scale where Pears was most expressive. Ainsley’s performance smouldered and seared as it negotiated the high-lying tessitura. The texts were difficult to pick up. In the case of ‘Batter my heart’ the frustration is built-in by the composer: his setting is marked at such a speed that no-one could possibly distinguish the words. Martineau has few rivals in this repertoire. His virtuosity of ‘Oh, to vex me’ and ‘Thou hast made me’ may stand out, but equally impressive and more subtle is his appreciation of the structure of ‘What if this present’. Here his execution of that understanding was a tour de force. The loudly trilling accompaniment which reflects the poet’s initial panic at the thought of imminent judgement underwent a steadily measured, finely controlled and seamless decrescendo until little but distant rumbles in the bass remained. Something similar happens in ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners blow’. The song opens with Purcellian fanfares and declamatory summonses from the singer but is also subject to a slow process of declining volume culminating in a soft, unaccompanied ending, very effectively performed by Ainsley, whose partnership with Martineau was particularly admirable in music where each artist is frequently performing at the extremes of his strength.

By comparison, Robin Tritschler’s fresh, sweetly rounded tenor, in combination with the vastly less intense Hardy poems, was something of a relief. He sounded thoroughly at home in the rewarding lyrical lines so prevalent in Winter Words, making much of the descriptive songs, notably ‘At Day-Close in November’. He sang the two narrative songs set on trains with an awareness of mystery and a hint of the macabre, while in ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ the characters of the innocent chorister who tells the tale and the vicar, stern, pompous and mean, came across vividly. Martineau’s provision of sonic imitations – railway sounds, creaking furniture, birdsong and solo violin – was particularly acute. To end the evening, in the final setting of Winter Words, ‘Before Life and After’, the two artists caught the necessary gravity and seriousness of the one philosophical Hardy setting.

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