Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
Violin Concerto, Op.15
Purcell edited Britten
Chaconne in G minor
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Orchestra of St Lukes
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 14 December, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City
In contrast to Wigmore Hall’s outpouring of concerts marking the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Benjamin Britten, this event passed almost unmentioned in New York, and even this clearly commemorative programme by the Orchestra of St Luke’s was not billed as such. Although it opened with a 1977 work expressly dedicated to Britten’s memory, there was no more than a bare mention of the date of his death buried in the programme notes.
The concert was a fitting tribute to Britten, however, including his 1938 Violin Concerto (which had its world premiere performance in Carnegie Hall in 1940) and two earlier works of suitable gravity (one edited by Britten himself) by two great English composers to whom Britten was a worthy successor.
To open the concert, the orchestra’s principal conductor, Donald Runnicles, led a moving performance of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Three strokes of a distant single chime opened the work, with the strings soon entering, repeatedly playing a simple, falling melody beginning with the violins and descending in stages to the lowest strings, overlapping so as to build ever-denser textures. As the work progressed, impelled by the ground-bass repetition of the theme, both the strings and the recurring chime increased in volume whilst the tempo gradually slowed until it almost stopped completely, with the final, quivering, resolving chord tantalisingly sustained and then suddenly released with sweeping up-bows, just as the chime softly struck one last time. Runnicles kept his arms extended until the last echoes of that final note had died away into total silence.
Britten’s Violin Concerto was next, in an energetic and gritty performance by Midori. The first movement was dominated by the solo timpani’s opening rhythmic motif, after which a cymbal softly led to sweeping string chords and a bassoon figure that continued the rhythmic pattern as Midori played the sadly-sweet principal theme with a rich, lyric tone. This gave way to a series of descending chords on the solo violin, a tutti passage in which the persistent rhythm was sustained in the lower strings, and a somewhat playful exchange of thematic material between orchestra and solo violin, concluding with a long, descending violin scale. After another tutti dominated by trumpets and tenor drum, the mood turned darker and introspective, and the tempo slowed as Midori intoned a long series of rhythmic figures, arpeggios and scales. For the remainder of the movement, the orchestral strings and harp – with interjections from winds, horn and percussion – provided a subdued accompaniment as the violin slowly explored the original theme and rhythmic motif, ending softly with harmonic chords on the E and A strings.
The second movement Vivace also featured a strong, recurring rhythmic motif that was exchanged frequently between Midori and the orchestra. Her run of ascending octave chords culminating with a high double harmonic was followed by a rhythmic tutti punctuated by trumpets, tuba, bass drum and cymbals – a combination that then thrice interrupted the violin’s attempts to develop a melancholic melody in duple meter (contrasting with the orchestra’s triple meter). After an extended trio for two piccolos and tuba, Midori carried off with apparent ease a series of increasingly complex ascending figures and then alternated rhythmic, left-hand pizzicatos with glissandos to harmonics – effects that the trumpets and winds then mimicked. A quick-paced duet between the solo violin and timpani, a cymbal crash, and a tutti passage contrasting rapid, repeating figures on the flutes and strings with a slower melody on the brass, horns and lower winds led to an extended cadenza. Here Midori showed off such dazzling pyrotechnical feats as double stops, bowed and pizzicato harmonics, left-hand pizzicatos, rapid descending and ascending scales, and finally a long, descending glissando into a trill and a slow expressive melody that flowed attacca into the final movement beginning with a solemn passacaglia theme first intoned by the trombones and then taken up by the strings and winds. The solo violin played with somewhat more animation as the passacaglia was taken up by the cellos, which were joined by the higher string sections in ascending order, all playing in tremolos sul tasto, creating an ever-thickening texture. After brief calls from the horns and winds and a solo violin passage, the muted strings and solo oboe returned tranquilly to the passacaglia, which then was played, with increasingly elaborate variations, by the solo violin as other instruments played the theme in its original form. After a march tempo was initiated by a series of short trumpet calls, Midori played at blazing speed a lengthy spiccato passage that included descending and ascending glissandos. The tempo then slowed for an extended tutti passage that had much in common with the Pärt Cantus that had come before and the Purcell Chaconne that was to follow, with variations of the passacaglia theme, and the original theme itself, played by the full orchestra. The solo violin returned with slow and solemn commentaries on the passacaglia, until its final chords faded away. Midori succeeded quite well both in carrying off all of Britten’s challenging technical demands and in conveying the concerto’s melancholic moods in a most touching fashion.
The second half of the programme paralleled the first half, beginning with a short work for strings based on variation, here of a single theme above a repeated ground bass – this time Henry Purcell’s ‘Great’ Chaconne in G minor. Although Purcell presumably did not intend this work to be a threnody, as performed here – appropriately, as edited by Britten – it seemed as much so as Pärt’s Cantus.
Runnicles’s choice of Elgar’s Enigma Variations to follow the music of Purcell and end the concert was brilliant; ‘Enigma’ is regarded by many as the greatest composition by a native English composer between Purcell and Britten, and its variation form fitted nicely into the thematic structure of this concert. Moreover, the ninth variation, ‘Nimrod’, owing to its elegiac quality, is one of the most frequently played works on occasions of remembrance, so it was particularly appropriate.
Elgar provides every section of the orchestra with a prominent role in one or more of the fourteen variations, and the entire ensemble played with great skill, responding cohesively to Runnicles’s direction. This was an exciting performance, capturing the many moods and colors of Elgar’s superb orchestration. The stately introduction and first variation contrasted interestingly with the rapidly chattering winds in the second variation, the comical solos for bassoon and contrabassoon in the third, and the loud, brassy tuttis that started and ended the fourth. Staccato wind figures relieved the dark mood of the strings in the fifth variation, which also juxtaposed quadruple and triple rhythms. Well-played solos for viola, horns and bassoons in the sixth variation were followed by the remarkable – and brilliantly executed – timpani solos in the seventh, ending with a striking brass fanfare.
The gentle eighth variation, featuring solos for clarinets, oboe, piccolo and bassoon, led directly into a stirring rendition of ‘Nimrod’ in which the orchestra’s strings were outstanding. Runnicles carefully controlled the gradual increase in textural density and dramatic intensity as the strings were joined first by the winds and horns and later the brass and percussion, and then, after the climactic and majestic ff, the sudden ritardando and diminuendo to pp to bring the variation to its touching conclusion.
The mood turned frolicsome in the tenth variation with winds alternating with muted strings, contrasting with an extended, legato viola solo. The short but eventful eleventh variation offered rollicking bassoon solos, rapidly descending scales on the flute and strings, tutti passages featuring brass and percussion, and an abrupt ending. A lyrical cello solo began the twelfth, with the melody soon taken up by the strings and winds and finally the solo cello, flowing attacca into the penultimate variation, in which solos for clarinet, cello and timpani played a prominent role. Elgar pulled out all the stops in scoring the stirring finale, and Runnicles built the music up again and again to interior climaxes, with the brass and percussion highlighting the nobility of the principal theme, and finally brought the work to an exciting finish on a ff sforzando chord.