Britten on Record: Haydn: Symphony no.55 in E flat major, ‘The Schoolmaster’ (Decca)
Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra / Benjamin Britten
Live recording: Aldeburgh Festival – Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, 19 June 1956
1 Allegro di molto
2 Adagio ma semplicemente
3 Menuetto & trio
4 Finale: Presto
Background and Critical Reception
This recording is taken from the very same concert as the Symphony no.45 (Farewell) listened to previously, with Britten conducting the Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra live from the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival.
Completed by 1774, the symphony is another of Haydn’s to acquire a nickname. Its Schoolmaster label was given after the composer’s death due to the apparently ‘wagging finger’ of the second movement theme, which is subjected to seven variations.
This recording feels much closer than the Farewell symphony, and loses a little of its charm as a result.
In addition Britten drives the first movement with impressive energy, heightening the contrast between this and the pointed toes of the Adagio, where the stiff upper lip can certainly be detected! For this movement Britten gets the strings to use mutes, and some of the violin tunes are extremely detached, their pecking figuration meaning the symphony could almost have been called the Hen as well.
The forthright Minuet gets a graceful and thinly scored trio for company, while the finale is one of Haydn’s irrepressible themes, given the perfect blend of wit and forward drive in this performance.
Not available on Spotify
Also recorded in 1956: Dvořák – Symphony no.7 in D minor Op.70 (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Naxos)
Next up: Mozart – Piano Concerto no.12 in A major ‘Schoolmaster’
Britten’s love of Mozart is well known, but Haydn was also a composer to whom he was repeatedly drawn – and who received a good deal of coverage at the Aldeburgh Festival, from which this recording is taken in 1956.
This is our first listen to a Britten recording with the Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra, though the orchestra he went on to have a particularly close performing relationship with was the English Chamber Orchestra. With him they made the first full recordings of The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring, not to mention the Cello Symphony and later, with Steuart Bedford, Death in Venice.
Haydn’s Farewell Symphony dates from 1772, and is one of his Sturm und Drang symphonies, at the point where his grip on the form was intensifying. At this stage he was exploring less than usual keys, as well as introducing darker colours into the orchestra. The symphony has an unusual end – as Haydn, keen to make a request to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy that his musicians get the chance to visit home, gradually thinned out the orchestra until just two violins were left playing. The next day they got their wish.
It is clear from the poise he keeps throughout this symphony that Britten has a very thorough understanding of Haydn and what makes him tick. The music is often light on its feet, which means the witty themes and exchanges so often evident in the music can be fully exploited. It also means the slow movements sound more like arias from an opera, as the Adagio does here, with some tricky high horn notes that the ECO horn player negotiates with impressive ease.
The orchestra dig in more in the faster music, which in this minor-key symphony has a darker hue. The ‘farewell’ itself is surprisingly sombre, but very nicely played – and there is obviously a bit of humour at the end because you can hear the audience chuckling before beginning their applause. I suspect there may have been a twinkle in Britten’s eye at that point…
Not available on Spotify
Also recorded in 1956: Bach – Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Chloë Owen (soprano), Gert Lutze (tenor), Kieth Engen (bass), Münchener Bach-Chor, Members of Munich State Opera Orchestra / Karl Richter (Archiv)
Next up: Haydn – Symphony no.55 in E flat major ‘Schoolmaster’
Phaedra by Alexandre Cabanel (1880). Image used courtesy of Wikipedia
Phaedra, Op.93 – Dramatic cantata for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra (July – 12 August 1975, Britten aged 61)
Dedication for Janet Baker
Text Robert Lowell, after Phèdre by Jean Racine
Three clips are set out below, taken from the premiere recording of Phaedra, sung by Dame Janet Baker with Steuart Bedford conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.
In May, in brilliant Athens
Oh Gods of wrath
My time’s too short, your highness
Background and Critical Reception
Even in the final years of his life, with his physical health dwindling, Britten retained a sharp musical mind that was keenly applied to new compositions.
During the 1975 Aldeburgh Festival he was captivated by Janet Baker, the mezzo-soprano with whom he had recently been working in the English Opera Group, as she sang the great Berlioz song cycle Les nuits d’été. Britten resolved to write a piece for her, and turned to a story for which he had originally planned a male lead.
This was the tragic tale of Phaedra, married to Theseus. She falls in love with his son from a previous marriage, Hippolytus, and when she believes her husband to have been killed in battle she attempts to seduce him. She fails, but her husband returns unexpectedly – and she alleges that Hippolytus has tried to take advantage of her. Theseus places him under a curse and he dies, but Phaedra’s conscience gets the better of her, and she confesses to her husband before poisoning herself to death.
Britten chose to interpret the tragedy not in opera form but in a five part, single movement cantata, with three arias and two recitatives. This was seen as homage to Handel, who would write works in such a structure – and the use of a harpsichord heightened the parallels with the Baroque period. Yet Britten also included a large amount of percussion to tell the story, which he used descriptively along with the string writing.
Phaedra had initially been suggested to Britten as long ago as the mid-1940s, as a possible sequel to The Rape of Lucretia, yet he shunned that idea in favour of Albert Herring. The discovery of a new translation from Robert Lowell drew him back to the story, helped by the fact that Baker was now singing the part of Lucretia.
Michael Oliver captures Phaedra‘s essence, describing it as ‘a masterly score with a pervasive, motto phrase echoing through it. Phaedra has an operatic amplitude of gesture, from the declamatory first aria, culminating in the heroine’s confession of her incestuous love for her stepson, to the huge phrase, tragic and even proud, in which she confesses to her husband. Again there is no hint of a fatally ill composer husbanding his resources, rather of one eagerly responding to new stimuli: the sequences of opaque ten-part string chords in the second aria, clearing each time to a poignant recollection, are a new sound in Britten’s music. So is the remarkable coda, in which fleeting recollections of Phaedra’s passion, madness and death fade out over a long-held octave C in the basses.’
Once heard, Phaedra is not easily forgotten. Its coruscating opening melody is an immediate indication of the tragedies at hand, and it is one of those unwieldy melodies that covers a huge range but somehow sticks in the mind, especially when hammered home as remorselessly as it is here. That is even before the contribution of the singer, who dominates with increasingly tragic lines that grow in dramatic power as the cantata progresses.
Britten finds a searing intensity through the vocal, which makes an incredibly powerful impact, aided by the probing melody from the first violins, not to mention the taut percussion, which are hit with harder sticks, and the sparse textures where the harpsichord provides a ghoulish presence. It is in a sense a reprisal of the intensity of The Rape of Lucretia, but adds the sparse scoring of late-period Britten, plus his greater economy of musical expression, means the whole story is packed into just a quarter of an hour, with not a single note going to waste.
Some of the word painting here is frankly scary. Nothing for me can top the rattling of the harpsichord as Phaedra sings of how “The very dust rises to disabuse my husband – to defame me and accuse!” The textures Britten uses here are remarkably similar to those used in horror films. And then the adagio, with which the cantata finishes, is tragedy itself, the strings reaching for the heights before sinking to the depths, slumping as the heroine herself does under the poison.
Phaedra is a powerful, distilled response to a tragic plot, Britten operating with an almost feverish level of intensity and making me, at least, wish that he had published even more music for female voice. This piece, though, is an apt signing-off in a vocal canon of almost unremitting quality.
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Decca)
Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Collins Classics)
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (Hyperion)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Endymion Ensemble / John Whitfield (EMI)
Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson (mezzo-soprano), Halle Orchestra / Kent Nagano (Erato)
Interpretations of Phaedra are all or nothing – and to be honest all of the ones I have heard fall into the former category. Nobody wanting a recording of the piece could be without Dame Janet Baker’s first recording, however, a rendition of frightening power and scabrous intensity.
Sarah Connolly has the backing of what sounds like a slightly bigger orchestra, in a version that brings home its full power with the assistance of superb digital Chandos sound. Among the more recent recordings is the very fulsome voice of Jean Rigby, accompanied by the edgy tones of the Nash Ensemble.
Meanwhile Ann Murray, Felicity Lott and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson are all formidable presences, dominating proceedings, though in the latter I found the orchestral contribution rather less on the edge.
The attached playlist offers the versions from Janet Baker, Ann Murray, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and an extra version from Jennifer Larmore.
Also written in 1975: Elliott Carter – A Mirror on Which to Dwell
Britten on Record: English songs by Bridge, Butterworth, Moeran, Warlock, Ireland and Lennox Berkeley (Decca)
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Studio recording: Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, September and October 1955
Bridge – Go not, happy day (Alfred Tennyson); Love went a-riding (Mary E Coleridge) Butterworth – Is my team ploughing? (Alfred Edward Housman) Moeran – In Youth is Pleasure (Robert Wever) Warlock – Yarmouth Fair (Norfolk folksong) Ireland – I have twelve oxen (Anon) Berkeley – How love came in (Robert Herrick)
Background and Critical Reception
As Philip Reed writes in his booklet notes to the recent Decca release of Britten: The Performer, ‘Britten’s sense of responsibility towards British music of his own time (as well as the recent past) shone out in much of the Aldeburgh Festival programming’. Reed also talks of how, in the English song repertoire they committed to disc, ‘Pears and Britten offer readings every bit as considered as their memorable Lieder interpretations’.
As this collection of songs indicates, they had their favourites of each composer – though performing the music of Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge, would have been of special relevance. The collection includes Britten’s only recordings of the music of Moeran, Warlock and Berkeley. Moeran was a composer he met and respected, bonding over a shared love of folk song, while Lennox Berkeley became a firm friend.
The pair had a deep respect for some of the songs of John Ireland, Britten’s teacher at the Royal College of Music noting his joy at their performances on several occasions. The wonderful John Ireland Companion, issued in the composer’s centenary year by Boydell and edited by Lewis Foreman, publishes a letter written to Pears after a concert in 1947. In it, Ireland praises his ‘great expansiveness and sympathy’. He declares that ‘I can find no words adequate to express gratitude and appreciation of your wonderful performance’.
These small but meaningful songs are a delight, the sense of enjoyment on both Pears and Britten’s part clear for all to hear. Go not, happy day is an especial pleasure, one of Bridge’s most ardent songs beginning with tumbling figuration in the piano part. This is played by Britten with impeccable attention to the detail as well as with an ear on the overall effect. It’s quite fast but legible, and Pears – singing with a light indulgence – hits a beautiful top ‘A’ at the end.
Love went a-riding is more strident and march like, Pears’ voice proudly sat above the big piano part. Butterworth’s Is my team ploughing?, one of the songs from A Shropshire Lad, is more remote and thoughtful, Britten’s soft piano chords illuminating the quieter and more ruminative moments from the singer.
In youth is pleasure is a sombre setting, complemented by some sparkling ornamentation in the right hand from Britten, lighting up the song’s serious tone. Yarmouth Fair is the complete opposite, a bright, spring-like song that is invigorating here. I have twelve oxen is one of Ireland’s more carefree utterances, and Pears sings it with lyrical warmth. Finally Berkeley’s sonnet setting How love came in is brief but thoughtful.
These songs make an ideal companion to Britten and Pears’ recordings of the folk song arrangements.
Each of these recordings can be heard on a release made available by Heritage, available on Spotify here.
Also recorded in 1955: Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue (Morton Gould (piano), Symphony Orchestra / Leopold Stokowski)
This is the first of a number of Britten recordings preserved by the BBC and issued as part of their BBC Legends label / series. Of late the enterprise seems to have stopped, but in the last 15 years they have made a large number of extremely valuable recordings available for the first time.
The disc in question focuses on recordings made by the horn player Dennis Brain, whose life was tragically cut short by a car accident in 1957, at the age of 36. Britten enjoyed a lasting friendship with him that yielded the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, and Brain was also a visitor to the Aldeburgh Festival when that began.
This recording dates from the 1955 festival, and in the booklet Tully Potter describes Britten’s contribution as ‘bringing a Mozartian touch to this Mozart-inspired work and showing no sign of his antipathy to Beethoven’.
I have always enjoyed this piece as background listening, which is not to say it is negligible in musical content, but that it has some lovely sonorities and melodies that are easy on the ear. This is one of Beethoven’s more amiable works, appreciating the interplay of wind instruments with a smile frequently on its face, with a piano part that is half way to that of a concerto.
The recording itself is quite murky, and some of the wind instruments are rather backward in the mix, but once you get through the mottled textures the musicality completely carries the piece. There is a very appealing grace to the piano theme of the first movement, when it changes gear from slow introduction to fast movement proper. There is also a heart melting contribution from Brain himself half way through the slow movement, then a really nice lilt to the last movement theme, again in the hands of Britten.
Also recorded in 1955: Bach – Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould) (Columbia)
Next up: English songs by Bridge, Butterworth, Moeran, Warlock, Ireland, Berkeley and Oldham
Britten on Record: Schubert – Der Einsam; Du Bist Die Ruh; Der Musensohn; Der zürnenden Diana; Sprache der Liebe (Decca)
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Studio recording: Unknown venue, July 1954
Der Einsam D800
Du Bist Die Ruh D776
Der Musensohn D764
Der zürnenden Diana D707
Sprache der Liebe D410
Background and Critical Reception
These are the earliest available recordings on Decca of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten performing Schubert, a composer with whom they were to have an extremely intimate musical relationship.
For Decca they recorded both Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin, as well as a number of groups of shorter songs – of which these are several examples. This particular quintet date from July 1954, right at the start of the pair’s recording relationship with the company.
The flowering of a special relationship between these two and the music of Schubert is all too clear in these five songs, right from the moment where Britten introduces Der Einsame, curling the fingers of the right hand around the melody while the left hand keeps a light ‘clip clop’ march going. It is a charming performance.
Emotions run high throughout Du bist die Ruh, and the closeness of the recording heightens the intensity. Britten’s piano is so responsive to the score, so well-shaped, and the two have a very instinctive ‘rubato’ that lets the music breathe perfectly. Yet the moment that makes the listener catch their breath is from Pears himself, and the control he exhibits on the rise to the highest note of the phrase ‘Allein erhellt’ (‘Alone is illumined’) is really quite something, the note held for what feels like an eternity at the top of the phrase.
Meanwhile the invigorating Der Musensohn trips along, before Sprache der Liebe again finds the upper reaches of Pears’ voice to beautiful effect. The more substantial song Der zürnenden Diana is a bracing march in heavier tone, with Pears taking command.
Not available on Spotify.
Also recorded in 1954: Shostakovich – Symphony no.10 (Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra / Evgeny Mravinsky (Naxos)
Next up: Beethoven – Quintet for piano and wind, Op.16
A Birthday Hansel, Op.92 – for high voice and harp (21 March 1975, Britten aged 61)
1 Birthday song
2 My early walk
3 Wee Willie Gray
4 My hoggie
5 Afton water
6 The winter
7 Leezie Lindsay
Dedication These songs were written at the special wish of Her Majesty The Queen for her mother’s seventy-fifth birthday, August 4th 1975
Text Robert Burns
Language Scottish dialect
An extract from the recording made by Peter Pears and Osian Ellis. With thanks to Decca.
Background and Critical Reception
‘I honestly do not think that anything in my life has given me greater pleasure than your birthday gift. It is very precious to me, and will I am sure give joy to your countless admirers.’
So wrote the Queen Mother to Britten on 18 August 1975, in receipt of her seventy-fifth birthday present, A Birthday Hansel, which Britten composed to a request from the Queen herself. A ‘hansel’ is in fact a ‘first gift to wish someone good luck’, and in choosing the poetry of Robert Burns Britten was noting the Queen Mother’s Scottish blood.
With Peter Pears and Osian Ellis now the chosen performing vehicle for his new songs, Britten broadened his repertoire for tenor and harp, choosing eight short poems for the combination – of which one, Ae fond kiss, was removed on account of its more sombre mood. Colin Matthews notes this may have been because of its extra-personal content and a reference to the growing lengthy absences from Aldeburgh of Peter Pears, laden as the tenor was with international engagements.
There is relatively scarce reference to the song cycle from Britten commentators. The Britten Companion barely mentions it, while Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the composer devotes just a single paragraph. ‘The choice of Scottish words and the generally carefree atmosphere was appropriate to its dedicatee’s Scottish childhood’, it says, ‘though there may also be some reflection of what Rita Thomson had brought into Britten’s life.’
In his biography of Peter Pears, Christopher Headington observes that ‘The final song in the cycle, called Leezie Lindsay, is marked ‘wild’ and is splendidly vigorous and reel-like, seeming to defy the age of the Queen Mother and Pears himself.’ John Bridcut declares the cycle ‘is not demanding listening, but weaves its own enchantment’, but Arnold Whittall finds ‘the work is not without its touches of melancholy, particularly in the haunting setting of The Winter‘, while he also observes ‘the tonally disorienting switches for the repetition of Leezie Lindsay’s motif’ in the final number.
A Birthday Hansel is for me one of the undiscovered late gems in Britten’s output, and it brings together nicely his sensibilities for setting folk song with his sparse, late-period scoring. For although his melodies are his own, Britten makes them sound as if sourced traditionally – which the last song, Leezie Lindsay, may well be, but the others are original. The harp provides the ideal instrumentation for these open air songs, particularly in the affectionate portrayal of the blackbirds, lapwing and stock dove in the lucid and rippling textures of Afton Water.
The opening birthday song itself sets the scene nicely, with the wide open texture of the harp but a little bit of tension from the semitone intervals Britten uses from the outset. Harmonically he is up to his old tricks here, especially in the closing bars, which slip from D major – where the song is expected to finish – into the unexpectedly bright climes of F major.
As John Bridcut notes, some of the songs cast a spell, especially Wee Willie Gray, ‘and his leather wallet’, where the singer and harp retreat to a very quiet dynamic, as if observing a spectre. My Hoggie is unexpectedly affecting, too, but the final Leezie Lindsay is a delight, the singer crying out ‘Hey-ya’ at the end in a melody that is a sped-up replica of the climax to Before life and after from Winter Words. It is an unexpectedly affirmative finish.
Not unexpectedly there is also a dark side just beneath the surface of these songs, glimpsed particularly when The Winter reaches the words, ‘Now ev’ry thing is glad, while I am very sad, since my true love is parted from me.’ This is surely another reference to Pears’ frequent absences from the ill composer’s side, which Britten can make while keeping a largely positive countenance for his birthday subject.
Peter Pears (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Decca)
Mark Wilde (tenor), Lucy Wakeford (harp) (Naxos)
There appear to be just two available recordings of A Birthday Hansel, from each ends of their respective performers’ careers. Peter Pears and Osian Ellis have a wonderful ‘back and forth’ in their account.
I was distracted a little listening to Pears, but that was purely my fault, for I could still hear Aschenbach – which goes to show how thoroughly he had integrated himself into that character. Yet his is an agile and extremely enjoyable performance, especially in the mysterious Wee Willie Gray, the sorrowful My Hoggie and the extrovert Leezie Lindsay.
I really warmed to Mark Wilde’s version, because of its authentic ‘Scottishness’, which really brings Burns’ poetry alive. Lucy Wakeford is excellent too.
Both recordings of A Birthday Hansel can be heard by clicking on this playlist.
Also written in 1975: Malcolm Arnold – Fantasy for harp, Op.117