Listening To Britten is now well into the hundreds in terms of the number of pieces heard and experienced – but there are still several major aspects of Britten’s life and output yet to be revealed.
We have not yet experienced a folksong setting, an opera, a canticle or a church parable – but now the Purcell realizations are homing into view. These are Purcell songs given a new set of clothes, in effect, with Britten providing a new piano part for concert performance. This was done to give his recitals with Peter Pears more options, to remind their audience of Purcell’s standing, and for Britten to express his sheer admiration of the composer in musical form.
So what exactly are they, and how will they translate to an ordinary Britten listener? Why do I feel a certain amount of trepidation about listening to them? The smaller Britten books steer clear of them almost completely, so they rank as mere mentions by Messrs Bridcut, Kennedy and Oliver. Even the more comprehensive ones, talk more of Britten and his love of Purcell rather than how translated to these new appropriations.
Paul Kildea, however, does mention that ‘while Britten’s vocal works before his discovery of Purcell were not all one note per syllable – On This Island proves this – but thereafter his vocal writing contained the brilliance, freedom and vitality he identified in Purcell’s songs’.
A new book, Britten’s Unquiet Pasts by Heather Wiebe, contains a whole chapter on Realizing Purcell, so that seems a good place to start. Wiebe talks engagingly about Britten’s love of Purcell and particularly his championing of the cause in 1945, the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death. The influential qualities of Purcell’s vocal writing are then explored in greater depth.
Yet the realizations themselves don’t get too much of a mention, and here they are – all 42 of them, in addition to Britten and Imogen Holst’s own editions of The Fairy Queen and Dido and Aeneas.
Happily the tenor Ben Johnson is on hand to provide some insider knowledge to put me at ease. “You aren’t alone, they certainly have their critics. One must remember when they were written, a long time before the early music revival in most cases. One forgets how much credit Britten and Pears should get for championing Purcell, and also Blow, Humfrey and Dowland, before it was fashionable to do so.
With the Purcell realizations it is worth remembering they’re not supposed to be authentic realisations, it isn’t authentic to perform Purcell with a piano, and Britten did that to make them concert worthy.
To me they are fantastic, inventive, charming and fun. I’m very fond of them. Purcell taught Britten an awful lot about vocal writing, and a song like Let the florid music praise!, from On This Island, is straight out of a Purcellian ‘canto’, as are some of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne“.
That helps – a lot. It seems to me that Britten might have been in on an early form of remix, where he took lesser known Purcell songs and brought them forward to the public domain by way of a musical language that people might understand. Is it effective? We’ll have to wait and see…
Ben Johnson’s full interview with Good Morning Britten will appear soon, and he sings the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings as part of the Proms Saturday Matinee concert, Saturday 24th August, 2pm at the Cadogan Hall. More details about Heather Wiebe’s book can be found here. Hyperion’s recordings of the complete Purcell realizations, which will form the basis of my listening, can be seen and heard in part here