Foundations – Britten and J.S.Bach


As we run through Britten’s work a more explicit link with the music of Bach may become clear, but at the time of writing the extent of the German composer’s influence on his music is difficult to fully determine. What is abundantly clear, however, is the high regard Britten held for Bach, which can be clearly felt in the recordings made for Decca of the Brandenburg Concertos in 1968 and the St. John Passion, two and a half years later.

At this time, attitudes to the performance of Bach were very different, and so-called ‘big band’ performances were the norm rather than the exception they are today. Now we are much more accustomed to the lower pitches, leaner scoring and little to no vibrato that characterise period instrument performance. The composer’s music might be revealed more as they intended, but there is also the potential sacrifice of expression at the expense of accuracy.

In his Bach recordings, Britten never wants for expression. In fact the Brandenburg Concertos have a propensity to go to the other extreme, and the prominent vibrato of violinist Emanuel Hurwitz in the slow movements of the First and Second Concertos can be cloying. Yet there is great affection for the music throughout, an understanding of its energy as the melodic figures of the English Chamber Orchestra sections bounce off each other, and sprightliness to the continuo that keeps the music fresh. The slow movements reach considerable emotional depths, too, with those in the Fourth and Fifth Concertos keenly felt. The unusual colours of the Sixth still sound as revelatory as they must have done when they were published in 1721.

Still more affecting is the drama of Britten’s recording of the St. John Passion. Again the purists will find their views compromised by the conductor’s ‘old school’ approach, but he was alive to the drama of this Passion. The St. John may be the poor relation of the St. Matthew Passion in terms of popularity but it is arguably more profound. In recognising this Britten made a prepared performing version of the score. Certainly the response to Bach’s word painting is vivid, with a sobering first part that builds the tension towards the crucifixion.

There is a real frisson to the singing in But the Jews cried out and said, and the harsh timbre of the organ when the crucifixion reaches its conclusion is notable. The bare sound at the start of the contralto aria The end is nigh is notable, as is the sheer power when the vent of the temple is rent asunder. Some instrumental oddities can be found, too, such as the curious doubling of flutes in the first part soprano aria I’ll follow thee also, which gives an unusually rich sound. Meanwhile the vocal style towards the end of Now Anna’s sent him bound unto the high priest is unusual.

To what extent Bach makes himself known through Britten’s music is difficult to call, but it would appear Bach awakened the idea of casting religious music as a drama. It is interesting to note that while Britten resurrected the form of the solo cello suite, he did so in a way that set out to do almost the exact opposite of what Bach had already achieved, to free up the structures and expand the dance forms. Counterpoint became an integral part of Britten’s compositional style, but he used it in a way that seemed to turn its back on 18th century convention.

For now, then, the jury remains out, but it will be an interesting aspect of Britten’s music to consider as the run through his works begins.

The music referred to and listened to here can be found on a Spotify playlist. The following recordings were used as reference:

J.S.Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, BWV1046-1051 – Soloists, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
J.S.Bach, ed Britten: St John Passion, BWV245 – Soloists, Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

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