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‘Night Music’ – Stravinsky, Birtwistle, Britten, Handel, and Woolrich: Mark Padmore (tenor/director for Nocturne), Maxim Rysanov (viola), Jacqueline Shave (leader/director), Britten Sinfonia. West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 23.10.2008 (MB)

Stravinsky – Fanfare for a new theatre (1964)
Birtwistle – Prologue (1971)
Britten – Lachrymae: reflections on a song of John Dowland, op.48a (1950/1976)
Handel – Samson: ‘Total eclipse’ and ‘Thus when the sun’ (1743)
Woolrich – Ulysses awakes (1989)
Britten – Nocturne, op.60 (1958)

This was an excellent concert, constructed around Mark Padmore’s choice of Britten’s Nocturne as a work with which to inaugurate a new collaboration with the Britten Sinfonia. The connections between the works were genuine and interesting but never merely didactic. It seemed generous of Padmore to share the limelight with violist Maxim Rysanov, soloist in two of the works presented, but that generosity was repaid with fine performances indeed.

Stravinsky’s brief fanfare – almost beating Webern at his own game – made for a splendid opening gambit. Two trumpeters, Paul Archibald and Tom Rainer, brought precision and tonal warmth, the echoes of the Toccata to Orfeo setting down a marker for John Woolrich’s Monteverdi explorations, as well as leading almost seamlessly into the world of Birtwistle’s Prologue. The baleful quality of Birtwistle’s writing was captured by Padmore and members of the Sinfonia, the reappearance of the trumpet underlining the connection between the two pieces. Padmore’s diction was not always beyond reproach but it was interesting to hear a somewhat Brittenesque tonal quality applied to Birtwistle; I thought it worked rather well. 

This led us to Britten himself: his final work, Lachrymae, in the version for viola and orchestra. Rysanov sported a strange, somewhat vampirish outfit. There could be no doubts, however, concerning his performance, nor as to his direction of the other players. The first bars were played vibrato-less, allowing the music then to blossom, as if bringing distant music from Dowland’s time more sharply into focus in our own. I liked the occasional hint of contrast between Rysanov’s ‘Russian’ string sound and the more ‘English’ quality of his colleagues. This was not overdone and was far from ever-present, but it put me in mind of Britten’s friendships with Rostropovich and Shostakovich. I liked even more the occasional hints of Berg, stronger as time went on, the appearance of Dowland’s music reminiscent of – though it could hardly be expected quite to match – the appearance of the Bach chorale in the Berg Violin Concerto. The young Britten, it may be recalled, had greatly desired to study with Berg in Vienna, a desire frustrated by the parochialism of his teachers at the Royal College of Music. Rysanov brought the music to considerable heights of passion, underpinned by a finely judged balance between rhythmic freedom and security. Britten’s musical transformations were lain bare, but never clinically so; there was a true sense of the cumulative power of musico-dramatic progression.

Two arias from Samson followed. I was rather surprised, given Padmore’s lengthy association with ‘authenticke’ conductors, at the wideness of his vibrato here. Indeed, it seemed excessive and was toned down considerably upon the return to Britten. I also wondered whether less might have been more when it came to employment of the head voice. Diction was much better in the first aria, ‘Total eclipse’, Samson’s lament for his lost sight, though it was more variable in ‘Thus when the sun’. Padmore’s melismata here were perfectly handled: each note crystal clear, yet never at the expense of phrasing. I was much taken with the reassuringly old-fashioned sturdiness – though never heaviness – to the playing of the Britten Sinfonia. Handel, who nowadays suffers some truly appalling perversities in the name of ‘authenticity’, had his dignity restored at last.

The second half opened with Woolrich’s Ulysses awakes, for me perhaps the highlight of the programme. The opening double-bass line led perfectly into Rysanov’s viola line, permitting Monteverdi’s music truly to blossom in its new surroundings. This was a passionately ‘inauthentic’ treatment, though it never succumbed to all-purpose Romanticism. Almost Purcellian in its melancholy, the reminder of the English Orpheus presented a bridge not only between Woolrich and Monteverdi but also between Woolrich, Britten, and Monteverdi. I could not help but think of Britten’s superlative recorded account of Purcell’s great Chacony in G minor. Harmonic horizons broadened yet Woolrich always remained faithful to the spirit of Monteverdi. A modernist halo was provided by the players of the Britten Sinfonia, a powerful reimagining – and here I thought of Henze’s realisation of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – of Monteverdi’s continuo ensemble. I wondered whether one or two vocal phrase-endings were ever so slightly tossed away but, in the face of such a magnificent performance from Rysanov, this must be the most minor of criticisms. Far more to the point was the apt vocal flexibility to his reading, heightened by the faultless interplay between soloist – first among equals – and ensemble. This performance was, quite simply, outstanding.

We came finally to Britten’s Nocturne. Once again, the ever-flexible Britten Sinfonia was on excellent form, both as an ensemble and as soloists. There were certainly many opportunities for soloists to shine, all of them well taken: bassoon, harp, horn, timpani, oboe, flute, clarinet, and strings. The interludes between songs were all extremely fine. Britten’s sound-world announced itself from the very first bar, the strings’ sense of uneasy undulation during the setting of Shelley’s Prometheus unbound unerringly caught. Padmore had mastered the trickiness of the Peter Pears-inspired vocal writing, accomplishing what Pears himself defined as the role of technique: the liberation of the imagination.  There was a real sense of the magic and menace of Coleridge’s moonlight in The wanderings of Cain, not least thanks to the opening harp sounds and the gradual darkening of Padmore’s voice. Word-painting was attentive, for instance in the setting from Thomas Middleton’s Blurt, Master Constable. Here Padmore led us through the hopping of the cricket to the ‘peep, peep, peep, peep,’ of the goat, the latter with the able collaboration of Stephen Bell on French horn. Oboe and pizzicato strings made their mark in Owen’s The kind ghosts, followed by wonderfully flighty flute and clarinet in Keats’s Sleep and poetry. The scherzando quality those instruments imparted contrasted powerfully with the English stillness of the strings, Padmore not only connecting the two moods but leading and adapting to them. I thought, however, that his tone sounded bleached, even threadbare by the end of this movement: a pity, especially given the words: ‘... all the cheerful eyes that glance so brightly at the new sun-rise’. But there was compensation in the final Shakespeare sonnet (no.43) from the warm, ardent strings, and the sense of return at the end was impressively caught by all musicians.

It is worth saying a few words on presentation. Katie Mitchell and Lyndsey Turner were credited as ‘staging consultants’. There was, however, no ‘staging’ as would commonly be understood, save for the unavoidable fact of the performances taking place on a stage. It is not clear to me what can have been involved other than deciding where the musicians would be placed on stage and whether they stood or were seated. Such a task hardly seems to require two consultants but there was nothing objectionable to whatever it was they had done. To start with, I wondered whether having the musicians stand for Lachrymae was a deliberate evocation of the practice of earlier ‘players’ – as opposed to a modern orchestra – but in that case, it was far from clear why this should not have been applied to Ulysses awakes. No harm was done; perhaps I was missing something. On the other hand, the programme notes, were excellent: both the commentary to all but one of the pieces by Jo Kirkbride and the short essays from Padmore and Kate Kennedy. Woolrich wrote his own note, which deserves to be quoted in full, should that be the right phrase:


There are two great arias at the beginning of Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria: one for Penelope, and this one for Ulysses, waking on the shore of his homeland. In this retelling, the viola sings Ulysses.


Talk about letting the music speak for itself! Intentionally or otherwise, this seemed to me a clever strategy: without any more of a guide, one had to listen all the more closely. Perhaps, after the manner of Debussy giving titles to his piano Préludes at the end rather than the beginning, we could be treated to additional commentary following the performance.

Mark Berry

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