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Benjamin BRITTEN
in rehearsal and performance
Nocturne for Tenor and Chamber Orchestra Op.60

Rehearsal:
Opening credits and Introduction [2.27]
Below the thunders of the upper deep [4.37]
Encinctured with a twine of leaves [2.48]
Midnight’s bell goes ting, ting, ting [4.37]
But that night when on my bed I lay [4.33]
She sleeps on soft, last breaths [5.10]
What is more gentle than wind in summer [5.20]
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see [3.43]
Performance:
On a poet’s lips I slept [3.06]
Below the thunders of the upper deep [3.33]
Encinctured with a twine of leaves [2.13]
Midnight’s bell goes ting, ting, ting [2.13]
But that night when on my bed I lay [3.03]
She sleeps on soft, last breaths [3.50]
What is more gentle than wind in summer [2.58]
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see [4.36]
Bonus selection:
Peter Pears with Julian Bream (lute)
Dowland Fine knacks for Ladies
Rosseter What then is love but Mourning
Benjamin Britten Interview
Peter Pears (tenor)
CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Recorded April 29 1962, bonus tracks recorded February 1959, January 1968
CBC HOME VIDEO DVD 4277
[58.55] Bonus tracks [15.41] also available as VAI 4277


This is a remarkable disc that offers a unique insight into two of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. The DVD comprises a rehearsal and a studio performance of Britten’s Nocturne, with the composer conducting the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra and Peter Pears singing. Two bonus tracks are also included – a CBC interview with Britten, and a performance of two Elizabethan songs by Pears and Julian Bream.

The disc opens with the rehearsal of Nocturne, filmed in 1962 - only four years after the work was written and close on the heels of the first performance of the War Requiem. Here, Pears introduces each song with a brief explanation of its subject and meaning, including the first few lines of the poem. This is helpful for those who are not familiar with the words, a knowledge of which enhances understanding of the work as a whole, how it hangs together and Britten’s modus operandi. The camera then shifts over to Britten conducting the rehearsal before panning back to Pears. All of this is completely live - one can see Pears in the background waiting for the right moment when the last bars are fading away before recommencing his commentary. The rehearsal is revelatory in a number of ways – it is interesting hearing the first few songs without the voice (this leads to a greater appreciation of the brilliance and ingenuity of Britten’s score), and it is intriguing to have rationales of why Britten composed the score as he did – a minor example comes in "Midnight’s bell goes ting, ting, ting", when Britten asks the strings to diminuendo more, explaining that this is to let the muted horn sound through.

The moment the actual performance starts is, of course, a goosebumps / shiver down the spine moment. The sound is pretty awful – but that is to be expected and can most certainly be forgiven. Britten’s conducting is mesmerising – he is extremely economical in movement (some might say undemonstrative) – no faffing about here, no over the top, exaggerated gestures, no unnecessary flamboyancy – rather his motions are reserved and refined. And what results he gets! One notes also that he makes excellent use of his left hand. The whole orchestra clearly holds him in great regard – and he gives them the respect and encouragement they deserve. Pears, meanwhile, has complete control and vocal command. He is deeply committed, and very intense. Overall, it is a stunning performance of a twentieth century classic.

The bonus tracks are equally engaging. In the first, filmed in 1959, Peter Pears sings Dowland’s Fine Knacks for Ladies and Rosseter’s What then is love but Mourning, accompanied by a very young Julian Bream on the lute. Interesting how he announces the titles in both English and French (for the Canadian broadcast). The performances are outstanding and deeply engrossing – particularly when one considers that this repertoire was unfamiliar in the late 1950’s. The second bonus track presents Britten in 1968 talking to a CBC interviewer about how he sees his role as a composer. He explains that his approach is always to write for a person or occasion and that he can’t write in a vacuum, isolated from the rest of humanity in an ivory tower and detached from the treatment and reception of his works by musicians and the general public. He speaks of how the artist must struggle – that great works come from labour and strife and not from an easy life. Perhaps most entertaining and beguiling are his thoughts and views on the Beatles, also expressed here ...

Despite poor quality sound, this is an utterly fascinating DVD. It is amazing to see Britten and Pears at work together, and to watch their interaction, musical understanding and obvious empathy. Such documentaries are invaluable for those of us of a younger generation who never got to see these great men live, and it is a real shame that there isn’t more footage of a similar nature available.

Em Marshall



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