It has been a tricky year for BBC Radio 3 in terms of balancing three high profile composer anniversary celebrations. As if the double centenaries of the birth of Wagner and Verdi were not enough, we have – of course – the centenary of Britten’s birth, celebrated all year by this blog.
In the past a blanket approach has led to saturation of anniversary composers on the radio – I think especially of Mozart and Shostakovich in tandem in 2006 – so it is to Roger Wright’s immense credit that this year – to me at least! – has not suffered from Britten overkill on the airwaves.
Yet here we are on the verge of his birthday weekend, where Radio 3 will hand over much of its daytime and evening programming to the music and music making of Britten. Within this framework there is plenty of room for manoeuvre, as it is only right to highlight Britten the artist, a superb interpreter of other people’s music at the piano or on the conductor’s rostrum. With the inclusion of poetry alongside, and discussions of his life with experts such as John Bridcut and Colin Matthews, there is plenty of variety to be found over the weekend.
Prominent highlights are a rare concert performance of Albert Herring from the Barbican Centre, conducted by Steuart Bedford, with Andrew Staples as the boy who goes off the rails, Christine Brewer as Lady Billows and a fine cast that includes Roderick Williams (Mr Gedge), Matthew Rose (Superintendent Budd), Marcus Farnsworth (Sid) and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Herring). A good synopsis of the opera can be found on the Radio 3 website.
Britten’s three church parables, radical departures that bring the Japanese ‘Noh’ into direct contact with more obviously Western religion and storylines, will be performed in recorded concerts by the Mahogany Opera, directed by Roger Vignoles. Having seen them in Southwark Cathedral I can confirm the raw intensity of these interpretations, which can be heard one per day from Saturday through to Monday – Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son each on air at 2pm.
After the launch, at 4.30pm on Friday 22 November (Britten’s birthday), Oliver Knussen conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a typically invigorating program from Britten’s own Snape Maltings Concert Hall. The Cantata Academica is followed by the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and the Spring Symphony, where Knussen will be joined by soloists Claire Booth, Monica Groop, Robert Murray and Christopher Purves, as well as three distinct Norwich choirs. Knussen is the perfect choice, having met Britten as a child and worked as the Aldeburgh Festival Director – and he includes a world premiere performance, Locke’s Theatre, by Ryan Wigglesworth.
It is heartening to see an emphasis on amateur performers within the concerts. Best of all, perhaps, is the performance of Noye’s Fludde, live from St Margaret’s Church in Lowestoft on Sunday 24 November at 6pm, conducted by Britten biographer Paul Kildea and featuring many children from the town. Andrew Shore sings Noye, Felicity Palmer his wife.
Back at Snape, a family concert from the Maltings on Saturday 23 November at 11am brings together choirs from Bury St Edmunds, Woodbridge and Ipswich to sing the late Welcome Ode, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra will perform The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra and the Soirées Musicales under Andrew Gourlay. Complementing these will be contemporary works from Anna Meredith, Jay Richardson and Luke Fitzgerald.
Meanwhile at Aldeburgh Parish Church, Ben Parry conducts a performance of the wonderful cantata Saint Nicolas, with Alan Oke in the title role and the Aldeburgh Voices and Suffolk Ensemble representing the community.
Away from the big concerts lie some fascinating mini-series. Britten by Night will enjoy the composer’s preoccupation with the nocturnal at midnight on the Friday and Saturday, while the String Quartets will get their turn in a series of three concerts from the Benyounes Quartet.
Festival of Britten, meanwhile, will enjoy the composer’s dual role as a performer, where he cultivated some extraordinary recital relationships with Sviatoslav Richter, Clifford Curzon and Mstislav Rostropovich among others. I do however wish we could hear more entire works than soundbites in these programmes, for I’m not sure I could listen to Britten and Rostropovich in a single movement of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata without wanting to hear the whole thing!
All in all, though, this looks like a great and fun weekend, with a nice balance of light and shade about it. The theme of celebration is reflected, but there is enough variety through the day to give a detailed rendering of the composer’s portrait. Good Morning Britten will be there in spirit – or at least will be providing pertinent links, we hope, at useful points in the listening day. I hope you enjoy what you hear!
Full details of the radio listings for Radio 3’s Britten 100 weekend can be accessed by clicking here for a special page on the BBC Radio 3 website, and you can also keep up to date via their Twitter handle, @BBCRadio3.