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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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

By Graham Johnson

(Guildhall Research Studies 2)

Ashgate/Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 2003: x, 270pp, plus two CDs.

ISBN 0-7546-3872-3 £32.50paperback

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In November 2001 the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London presented a small festival of Britten's music. The festival - eight concerts in all - was devised by Graham Johnson and centred on the School vocal department and accompaniment course. Its aim was to explore the composer's links with literature and the human voice, and the artists involved included both staff and students-among them all the School's then-current student accompanists, a cross-section of singers both present and past, and a number of other solo instrumentalists.

Under the overall title Let the Florid Music Praise (the opening title of Britten's first song cycle On This Island, Op.11), eight programmes were based and presented on particular themes related to the stated subject (though coverage did not pretend to be either comprehensive or chronological), each introduced by a pre-performance lecture/commentary by Graham Johnson. These opening talks were expanded by Johnson for publication in their present form, in which they are now able to discuss both the music performed and related subject-matter in greater detail than was originally possible. In addition, an aural record of much of the actual performances was preserved in the form of two CDs which most usefully accompany the volume.

In effect, virtually all Britten's solo folksong settings and most of his solo song-cycles are featured (missing are A Charm of Lullabies and, more regrettably, the late masterpiece Who Are These Children?), along with the five Canticles, a number of early song settings and the Auden cabaret songs, and various supporting instrumental works such as the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, the Lachrymae, the Cello Sonata and the Third Cello Suite. Chapter titles such as Britten abroad: Italy, Poland, France and Germany, Britten the Elizabethan, Britten and Russia, Britten and the English Landscape, give some flavour of the contents.

Much additional and unique interest pertains to the volume in the extent of Johnson's personal contribution to his text, both by way of autobiographical reminiscences of his relationship with both Britten and Peter Pears during the years he worked directly with them at Aldeburgh and in his discussion of the homosexual subtext underlying Britten’s life and musjc - a subject revealed and explored both truthfully, 'from the inside' as it were.

Benjamin Britten was a musical genius, whose superlative capabilities not only as a first-rate composer but as an accompanist and conductor of no less remarkable quality, are unparalleled in this country. The celebration of one facet of his genius that this book represents should be, and one hopes will be, only the first of many similar ventures.

© John Talbot

see also review by Rob Barnett

 



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