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Britten: In Memoriam (3) Mark Padmore (tenor), Lisa Milne (soprano), Catherine Wyn Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Roger Vignoles (piano), Laurence Power (viola), Richard Watkins (horn), Edward Garner (conductor), The Nash Ensemble. Wigmore Hall, London 04.12.2006 (AO)

This superlative Wigmore Hall series commemorating Benjamin Britten culminated in two concerts featuring some of his finest song cycles. 

In the afternoon, Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles performed three of the cycles for piano and voice.  The Michelangelo Sonnets show Britten in an Italianate mood: but the songs are unmistakably Britten, despite their quasi-operatic character. Padmore negotiated their mellow lyricism with ease, though perhaps a little more emphasis on their erotic undercurrents might have been welcome. More disappointing were the Sechs Hölderlin Fragmente.  Hölderlin’s fragmentary, visionary miniatures have inspired many 20th century composers precisely because they are so equivocal.  Their very ambiguity seems made for settings that hover on the edges of tonality: they defy easy resolution. They call for unusually intuitive interpretation.  Britten senses their otherworldliness in his concise yet concentrated settings, but it’s up to the singer to bring this out. I’d hoped Padmore would make more of this cycle than he did on his recording, but it was not to be. 

On the other hand, with Winter Words, he was in excellent form. The Hardy poems are set by Britten as vignettes of a vividly imagined world.  The “journeying boy” somehow travelling alone at midnight with the key to his box on a string round his neck is like someone in a photograph by Weegee or Arbus.  How did he get there? Where is he going? These songs don’t so much tell stories as tantalise. Vignoles’ playing was exquisitely nuanced. I found myself marvelling at the piano lines as if hearing them anew.  It was wonderful.

No Britten retrospective would be complete without what are perhaps the two most famous cycles of all, Les Illuminations and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings.  The venerable Wigmore Hall platform was crowded to its limits for Les Illuminations, the Nash Ensemble supplemented by additional players.    It was interesting to hear this piece in a small venue, for its scope is panoramic, textually as well as in the breadth of Britten’s vision.  Rimbaud’s poems are quixotic and challenging.  For him, late nineteenth century London represented modernity and contradiction.  Britten’s setting is at once celebratory and disturbing, a dichotomy borne out in the Fanfare, where the first violins attack stridently while the other strings drone circular figures. Marianne Thorsen, the first violin, keeps balance in regular, lyrical solo passages. Lisa Milne picked up on the jerky, driven style of the writing, phrasing clearly lines like “hyenas, Molochs, vieilles démences, démons sinistres” with their distinctive jerking rhythm, replicated in the tersely arpeggiated chords that inject feverish tension in the orchestral part. Perhaps she was daunted by the sense of occasion, for we heard but glimpses of her innate warmth.  “Je veux être reine” gasps a woman in Royauté. It’s clearly a shocking idea for it’s a “revelation” that makes her friends swoon.  Quirky stuff, this, even more dependent on thoughtful interpretation than Hölderlin. There are lovely depths in Milne’s voice, but a more animated, vivid approach might have paid off better.

The highlight of the evening, without doubt was Phaedra, written towards the end of Britten’s life. It’s fascinating in many ways, not least of which is that it is orchestrated for voice, strings, percussion and harpsichord.  This is an unusual combination at the best of times, but especially for Britten, for whom “barbaric” drums and cymbal crashes didn’t come easily.  It harks back to his operas, with their sense of stylised brutality.  Yet it also refers to even earlier work, like Our Hunting Fathers, whose wild savagery belies the medieval texts.  Catherine Wyn-Rogers was magnificent.  The tragedy is intensified because Phaedra is a powerful personality, and a singer needs “stage presence” to convince in this role, for role it is, it’s more than “song”. Moreover, Wyn-Rogers has the vocal heft to carry off the frenzied passion that her obsession forces on her. She spits out her love with violent self-hate, made all the more poignant because of its erotic edge. “ Look, this monster, ravenous”, she sings, “for her execution, will not flinch. I want your sword’s spasmodic final inch”. Her pauses between each of the last words emphasises the dramatic portent. 

Again, the combination of percussion and harpsichord reflects the dichotomy that runs through so much of Britten’s work.  Fragile and strong, reverberant and shrill, the instruments frame the Recitative to Oenone, where much of the time, Phaedra sings unaccompanied and alone.  “Oenone, I want to die” she sings, completely isolated.   The contrast between the fury in the other parts of the piece and this frightening stillness also plays a structural role in the architecture of the entire cantata.  Although Phaedra and the orchestra may be muted in this section, there’s a powerful current of mounting tension, which explodes with renewed fervour in the final Adagio to Theseus, when Phaedra commits suicide.  Wyn-Rogers makes nearly every word count. “I’ve chosen a slower way to end my life”, says she almost casually, and then reverts to high drama. “Medea’s poison chills already dart along my boiling veins and squeeze my heart”.  And then, silence for a moment before she continues. Against a postlude of muffled drums ad cymbals, Thorsen’s violin rises pure and clear as if symbolically cleaning away the tumult.

Wisely, the rest of the programme could only follow after the interval and the “cleansing” effect of a non vocal work, the Lachrymae for solo viola and strings.  Ian Bostridge was scheduled to sing the tenor part in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, for no one sings it with quite the surreal intensity he brings to it.  Indeed, he appears to access levels of the deepest spiritual and interpretative meaning. In the relatively strait laced world of Britten’s time, the wild, elemental depths of this piece would have been hard to articulate. Alas, Bostridge was unable to appear due to illness – the third time in two weeks that scheduled singers have been unable to appear. Fortunately, Padmore was on hand. To my delight, he sang better in this concert than in the earlier one for which he had been scheduled.  It was provident that he’s performed it with Watkins and Thorsen only recently.   Again, the logistics of the tiny Wigmore Hall stage had an effect on the performance, Watkins having some trouble moderating his horn to fit better with the more intimate, closed acoustic.  Dennis Brain might have made the horn part sound easy, but it certainly isn’t.  Watkins’ playing was very good, but it was a salutary reminder that the horn is not the easiest instrument to play, and to play quietly and with sudden change of inflection.   By anyone’s standards, this was indeed fine playing, but it made one reflect on just how virtuosic some of the best performances have been.

Wigmore Hall has always been very strong on workshops and in depth studies centred around its concerts. Sometimes the audiences are formidably erudite: but then, as is so often the case, the more people know about a subject, the more open they are to learning even more. I was fortunate enough to attend the last of the series of talks on Britten hosted by Dr John Evans and Julian Philips.  Philips is of course well known and well loved by Wigmore Hall regulars, for his experience as a composer himself – and a good one – infuses his analyses of music with great perception.  Evans, one of the leading Britten scholars, was able to bring the most up to date insights, based on his intimate knowledge of Britten’s manuscripts.  It was a fascinating experience.

Anne Ozorio


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)