Listening to Britten – The Stream in the Valley


Landscape with a River in Hilly Country by Joseph Clover. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

The Stream in the Valley (Da unten im Tale) for voice, cello and piano (pre 21 November 1946, Britten aged 32)

Dedication Not known
Text German folksong, translated by Iris Holland Rogers
Language English
Duration 2′

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s cosmopolitan approach to folksong settings continues with this translated German song, written specifically for performance by Peter Pears, Britten himself and the French cellist Maurice Gendron at a recital in November 1946.

It was unusual for Britten to include a third instrument in his arrangements, but John Bridcut declares it ‘one of the rarest delights. Britten could perhaps have tossed it off just as a device to bring the three of them together at the end of the recital. But, although it sounds simple, it is clearly the fruit of the utmost care and resource, and the result is bewitching’.

The song was not published in Britten’s lifetime, and Bridcut speculates that it may not even have been heard in concert in that period either. Even to this day just the one recording exists.

Thoughts

Britten’s knack for generating watery accompaniment at the drop of a hat lies behind the success of his setting of this elusive song. The Stream in the Valley refuses to settle in a specific tonality, its cello and piano lines restlessly meandering through keys at will – flowing as freely as the stream, even.

It is in the final verse, with the words ‘thank you for loving me, although we must part’, that a sense of resolution is at last glimpsed, even though it is an ultimately sad one even as the cello comes to rest.

The song is actually a lot less simple and a lot more fraught than I was expecting after reading Bridcut’s purple prose, and needs a few listens to be fully appreciated because of its refusal to settle. But the delights are there for sure.

Recording used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Christopher van Kampen (cello) and Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)

Philip Langridge gets a sighing figure to the words ‘troubled’ and ‘sad’, though at the upper end of the range he sounds just a little taxed. Christopher van Kampen and Graham Johnson play beautifully.

Spotify

Langridge, van Kampen and Johnson can be heard by clicking here.

Also written in 1946: Ruth Gipps – Symphony no.2

Next up: Albert Herring, Op.39

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