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Britten, Voice and Piano
Lectures on the Vocal Music of Benjamin Britten
by

Graham Johnson, senior professor of accompaniment, GSAMD
Guildhall School of Music and Drama Research Studies 2
ISBN 0-7546-3872-3
Paperback with 2CDs
254pp plus 15pp index; ix pp foreword
Co-published by The Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Ashgate Publishing Limited.

 

Does Graham Johnson ever sleep, I wonder? In the field of song in all its various concert forms he has redefined the word 'prolific'. Look at his production in the field of lieder (outstandingly in his Schubert-Hyperion series) where his essays on the songs, their content, multiform context, personalia, construction, joys and doldrums are an example to the rest of the industry. His creativity is not confined to intriguing commentary but extends with equal force to a sensitive pianistic judgement coupled with the technique to deliver the mind's 'image' - a compleat man. Born in 1950 he has already produced more than many artists deliver in a whole lifetime.

George Odam's preface reminds us that what we have here is a highly personal and perceptive commentary on works Johnson has experienced not only with Britten and Pears but also as accompanist sitting where Britten would usually have sat.

This work derives from the eight concerts given at the GSAMD from 22 November 2001 (which would have been Britten's 88th birthday) to 4 December 2001 (the 25th anniversary of Britten's death) under the series banner Let the Florid Music Praise. The eight chapters (one per lecture) are not a straight transcript of what was heard at each event but an expansion in a way that would have been impracticable on the day given the constraints of concert timing.

The chapters are, after a ten page introduction, The Young Britten 1913-35; Britten Abroad - Italy, Poland, France, Germany; The British folksong settings; A miscellany of folksongs; Britten the Elizabethan, Britten and the Baroque, Beginning (Auden) and ends (Eliot); Britten and Russia; Britten and the English landscape.

Johnson's narrative weaves life episodes and musical commentary indiscriminately and artfully. The style is relaxed but informative with personal observation and affection on the surface rather than implicit.

Little details are part of the attraction. Who knew that Holiday Diary was premiered by Betty Humby (later Lady Beecham)? Britten in 1935 accompanied Sophie Wyss in Mahler songs for the BBC. Johnson, himself gay, comments on the extremely antagonistic heterosexual British musical world into which Britten emerged from the RCM in 1934 where the great white hope of the day was William Walton. Britten had a real distaste for French culture (the Quatre Chansons are early works) and for Nadia Boulanger whom he considered had ruined Lennox Berkeley. Contrast this with his admiration for Francis Poulenc probably secured through their common sexual sympathies. The Auden connection is well known but Johnson delves deep in lecture 6. I suspect that the reference to the secretly recorded spontaneous performance by Britten and Pears of Funeral Blues and Tell Me The Truth About Love will prompt a procession of enquiries at the British Library’s National Sound Archive.

The chapter on the Britten-Russia connection is especially good. Johnson tells us that The Firebird was much admired by Britten and that the composer's first substantial experienced of Shostakovich was of Albert Coates’ 1936 performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The Russian Funeral Music was conducted by Alan Bush whose eightieth birthday concert at the Wigmore was arranged by Graham Johnson. Johnson also opens intriguing casements noting that the poems of Housman that 'most angrily subversive of gay poets' should have been monopolised by so many heterosexual composers many of whom failed to pick up the homosexual references. This very same Housman remained unset by Britten.

Occasionally one will disagree with Johnson's conclusions. His comments on the limitations of Finzi setting Hardy as against Britten are something with which I disagree. Britten's Hardy settings always seem to me to be objective, illustrative at a superficial sense, unyielding and without heart. Similarly I am not ready to believe that the antagonism he suffered for his 'war record' and his sexuality were just a matter for 'the shires'. Johnson does not do himself justice in that observation.

What matters now and what has always mattered is the music. This book will assuredly encourage investigation and further discoveries.

The book is in largish format and is very pleasingly laid out and designed with its covers in stiff card. There are forty photographic plates and although some will be familiar to Brittenites I wondered if some were new to published sources.

The book is complemented by no less than two CDs the content of which is methodically listed at pp. 254/255. The CDs, plainly designed, slip into a dual plastic pocket bosticked into the inner back cover. Not only are various songs included on the discs but also various instrumentals including the Third Cello Suite, Lachrymae, Introduction and Rondo alla Burlesca. These non-vocal pieces were selected to illuminate or reinforce strands in the lectures. The book details the track numbers and keys them into the text in the form of sidenotes so you can if you wish read and play then pause and read and play all the way through.

The CD offers the sepulchral baritone of John Evans for A Poison Tree (first version). Michelle Jueno is rather shrill. The Lift Boy for SSTB ensemble has a revue style quick pulse Paul Hopwood makes for a good clear steady tenor - admirable. I hope that we will hear more from him. Graham Johnson joins Adrian Thompson for five songs from the Michelangelo Sonnets. This is his only appearance on the CDs. Paul Cibis and Jonas Samuelsson make much of the threat in The Miller of Dee. Paul Hopwood sounds very like Pears in The Shooting of His Dear. It is as if he had adopted the Pears style in that song. Adam Tunnicilffe is rather pallid in the folksongs with guitar but is much better in He is my altar with Denis Frenkel's vibrantly painted piano accompaniment. The train rattle of Calypso is nicely done by Katie Van Kooten and Marc Verter. The sound quality is very good.

Britten scholars and enthusiasts will be extremely grateful to Johnson, GSAMD, Ashgate and indeed to George Odam who I suspect did more towards making this book happen than he mentions in his brief preface.

An invaluable further addition to the Britten library, then. This is by no means a series of annotated comments on one song and then the next and then the next and so on. The chapters are pleasurably diverse and swing with relaxed mastery and without disruption from commentary (never on the basis of a technician's manual by the way) to biography, from observation to advocacy.

I hope that it will encourage further discoveries for listeners and for those of you who have not yet encountered Britten's Our Hunting Fathers (Söderström or Heather Harper), Russian Funeral Music, Violin Concerto (Ida Haendel or Lydia Mordkovich), Sinfonia da Requiem, Cello Symphony and Serenade (Partridge on Classics for Pleasure) then do give them a try. You will learn much about the context of these works from this book. It will also serve as a constant and idiosyncratically faithful guide in your exploration of the songs.

Here is a composer who, like Tippett, has made it on the international stage. Perhaps one of the main indicators of greatness is whether or not you need a society to promote you. Tippett and Britten do not ... at least at present!

Rob Barnett

 



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