Britten through the eyes of…Sian Edwards

The conductor Sian Edwards has already been involved in several celebrations of the Britten centenary this year, and will also be taking part in celebrations in Moscow later this year. She has a long-standing association with his music, and in this wide-ranging interview we spoke about programming Britten and his place within English music, the importance of Tony Palmer’s biopics, and perhaps inevitably but importantly we talked about how women are gradually asserting themselves within classical music performance.

Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?

I think it was a school performance of A Ceremony of Carols. I love that sound he gets from the choir!

I started off as a horn player, too, so the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings was huge in my life. It alerted me to his unbelievably sure grasp of poetry, and his way of choosing poetry for the Serenade is not only through a beautiful selection but the combination seems to beautiful! His setting of Keats, the Sonnet, is stunning.

You conducted the Britten Sinfonia at one of the BBC Proms’ Saturday Matinee concerts, which you began with the Prelude and Fugue. Is that a difficult piece to conduct?

It is quite difficult to conduct, but I would say primarily that it is extremely difficult to play. One would hesitate to program it with any orchestra, unless it is of the calibre of the Britten Sinfonia, because it has eighteen individual parts. Every player has to be extremely confident at the start of the fugue, because it’s like ninepins going over! I was thrilled with the performance, the players are something else.

To me that was a rewarding program, placing Britten alongside Tippett, Berkeley and Holst.

It was, but oddly enough I would not instinctively do that, because I think it’s like programming Tchaikovsky with Rachmaninov. The flavours are strong but don’t necessarily complement each other. A showcase like that though, with works written at the same time, works very well. We were surprised and pleased that the Lennox Berkeley songs (the Four Poems by St. Teresa of Avila) held their own. Normally the Britten works are so strong and clear in themselves I would not consider putting them with anything else.

It is interesting thinking of the English composers, though, as I don’t really ever think of Britten as being continental. We had Vaughan Williams who studied with Ravel, and there was Tippett who studied Beethoven like crazy. Holst became something of a Middle Eastern mystic, while Britten had full classical training. We all go out there from this island, and take stuff from other cultures, and then we try to find an authentic voice. Tippett to me had a voice that wasn’t so English pastoral, but Britten wasn’t so afraid of his heritage, because he had confidence in the skill of a composer.

I often think that Vaughan Williams, Britten and Tippett look back to the Golden Age of English music – to Tallis, Purcell and those guys. It was an incredibly fruitful area of culture they felt connected to, and I think Britten extended that. Years ago I did A Time There Was, which I think does that very vividly.

You also conducted Phaedra in the same concert, the part of whom was sung by Sarah Connolly. How would you describe Phaedra to a newcomer?

Well someone described her to me as the ‘stepmother from hell’! Again in this work the prose Britten chose, the words themselves, are incredibly vivid. He had tremendous ability to write music with very strong words. The music doesn’t tangle the words up, and that is important. In new opera composers can accentuate a narrative or clutter up very strong textures, but Britten understands the power of the words and writes incredibly spare accompaniment. Sarah felt she could sing with incredible intensity, with support from the orchestra.

Do you think the centenary year has been a good opportunity for pieces like Phaedra to be heard more often?

Yes, it’s interesting that pieces like that get a bit buried. After Dame Janet Baker had done it, Phaedra felt a bit removed, but now it has new exponents. It’s good that those pieces that were less popular are centre stage today.

You have recorded The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, but which other Britten pieces have you conducted?

I had a spell of lots of performances of Les illuminations, with those wonderful texts by Rimbaud, and again I think that is a brilliant command of that wonderful language, together with brilliant writing for strings. It is huge fun to do.

I’ve also conducted Peter Grimes for Frankfurt Opera, and The Rape of Lucretia at the Theater an der Wien. We did a wonderful production there with Keith Warner, which was a very moving experience.

A brief glimpse of the Theater an der Wien production, conducted by Sian Edwards

I’ve also done the Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, but what I’m about to do with the Russian National Orchestra in Moscow on 14 December is the Cello Symphony. I can’t yet announce who the soloist will be (and it is not yet on the British Council’s website – ed), but it is an absolute thrill to work with them!

There is great interest in Britten in Russia. I remember doing Soirées Musicales in Leningrad years ago, so they did know more of the orchestral stuff. There is also a Russian biography of Britten, too, which Ludmila Kovnatskaya has put together, and it includes a translation of Donald Mitchell’s biography.

Have you studied much of Britten the conductor?

That’s an interesting question. By osmosis, by listening to recordings, I have encountered him. One thing that has impressed me incredibly is how the guys in the English Chamber Orchestra talk about his incredible understanding of tempo, and how he would have exactly the same tempo the morning after the recording session the night before.

You might say his style is elegant and understated but the essential part – the pulse – is ultimately there. I think thoughtful and measured are good words for him too, he had all the elements of a very fine conductor.

You collaborated with Tony Palmer in his film on Holst. Do you think it is valuable to have someone like him documenting British composers, their lives and achievements?

Absolutely. The wonderful thing working with Tony is that he is a real, true enthusiast. He loves this music, he understands the cultural importance of the figures, not just what they’ve left us but also their interpretation of musical culture and how they are linked to previous periods in English music. He has in a way explained through a prism who these people are, and he did find out so much about these people.

I also find it very interesting and moving in the Vaughan Williams film to watch that very early footage of London life, the pictures of street life at the time of A London Symphony, and I’ve not long been conducting The Lark Ascending, so having those images is very valuable.

Do you think now that with yourself, Marin Alsop and others it is now becoming easier for women to be appreciated as equals in classical music?

‘Yes’ is the answer. If you look at orchestras, the smaller ones especially, the conductors are reflecting the fantastic students coming through the colleges, and in the orchestras themselves. Conductors have been slower because women are slowly permeating the ‘authority figure’ jobs, because that involves the development of new ways of thinking.

The conducting stereotype is of the white-haired autocrat gentleman, the authoritarian figure, and it’s natural for it to take time for that idea to pass. The way women want to work, the way they’re seen, I think they can now do it on their own terms, rather than having to be more male than the men, like Margaret Thatcher was. As structures change I think there will be more women in these managerial or conducting jobs.

Do you think in a sense that Britten – intentionally or not – became rather a ‘men only’ brigade?

You probably are right but the performing area in that time was still mainly men, and even the London Symphony Orchestra didn’t change until the late 1970s I think. The freshness of his music appeals to everybody, of course, and I think of that wonderful recording of Lorraine McAslan and Steuart Bedford performing the Violin Concerto.

What is your personal favourite in his output and why?

The Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, and Les illuminations. I must say though that like a number of people I was slightly concerned about The Rape of Lucretia, as people had said it was heavy going, but I have to say that working on it as we did with Keith Warner found a way through it, and the beauty and incredible poignancy really did strike me.

Although Britten’s music is very direct, there is also a tremendous depth that repays study on many levels. It has real power.

Are there any of his pieces you find more difficult to listen to?

I suppose I’ve yet to discover the later operas. I know many people feel that Death In Venice is his greatest achievement, but I perhaps need more detail with those works!

The Britten in Russia concert programme, which includes Sian Edwards conducting the Russian National Orchestra in the Cello Symphony, can be viewed on the British Council website, which also has details of the season celebrating the composer this Autumn and Winter.

Sian’s artistic biography can be read by clicking here, while an appraisal of the Cadogan Hall Proms Matinee concert can be found here on the blog.

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