The Way to the Sea
On This Island, Op.11
Cabaret Songs [arr. Daryl Runswick]
Britten, arr. Colin Matthews
In memoriam Dennis Brain [London premiere]
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31
Samuel West (narrator)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
Ian Burnside (piano)
Richard Watkins, Nigel Black, Michael Thompson & Laurence Davies (horns)
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 1 September, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
West later returned to introduce the centrepiece of the concert: excerpts (beginning and end) of Britten and Auden’s most famous collaboration, “Night Mail”. The final shots, of the train arriving in Glasgow and the workers cleaning the locomotives is overlaid by Auden’s paean to the power letter-writing, affecting various people in various ways, when Britten was at his most Waltonesque (vis-à-vis “Façade”). There was a minor irritation with West’s head microphone, with which he didn’t seem all that happy and didn’t work too well in the Hall, which is surely small enough for a standing microphone only, if that.
One thing was missing in the various introductions: how extraordinarily pioneering these films were, given that sound in movies was still very much in its infancy. How complicated is the co-ordination between film, words and music was shown by Edward Gardner’s use of a click-track (although West tried to persuade us that it was to do with the film elves).
In between the two film items we had two Britten/Auden song-cycles. First tenor Andrew Kennedy – one of those utterly enthusiastic performers, like Tasmin Little, who can’t help but smile – and Ian Burnside performed “On This Island”, which – though curiously not introduced as such – had its first performance 70 years ago this year on the BBC. Encompassing various moods, the last of five songs – playful in words and music – provided a neat segue into the “Cabaret Songs”, as arranged for chamber ensemble by Daryl Runswick. Here the returning Nash Ensemble and Gardner were joined by the heavily pregnant Christine Rice using her present condition nicely in the first song to illustrate the dangers of love!
The turn from Auden to Dennis Brain brought Colin Matthews’s sympathetic arrangement of an unfinished work that Britten had felt too devastated to complete. His In memoriam Dennis Brain – in effect an introduction and allegro for four horns and ensemble – was utterly affecting 50 years to the day since Brain was killed in a car crash. Richard Watkins, once, like Dennis Brain before him, a Philharmonia Orchestra principal horn player, was joined by a trio of other such alumni.
Only one work could follow – Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, with Richard Watkins joined by Andrew Kennedy. After Gardner had introduced the work, Watkins played the horn part from memory, adding to the intensity of the performance, with Kennedy’s fine English tenor beautifully matched. Composed for Peter Pears in 1943 – the year of Britten’s 30th-birthday – it brought this concert to a spine-tingling close, having offered an unusual, almost corrective, view of early Britten.