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
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
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!