Britten’s Birthday – two concerts in the capital

Britten’s birthplace – 21 Kirkley Cliff Road, Lowestoft – with balloons. Image used courtesy of the Twitter feed from Britten 100

Fabio Zanon at Wigmore Hall; The Sixteen and Harry Christophers at Union Chapel, Islington: Friday November 22, 2013

Britten centenary day for me was spent in central London, largely at work but casting an envious eye in the direction of Snape and Aldeburgh.

However there was still plenty from which to chose in the capital city. Britten did not spend a great deal of time in London compared to his home – and quite frankly who could blame him, with the pull of the sea and the coast? London, great city though it can be at times, cannot hold a candle to nature in its rawest forms.

With my movements curtailed somewhat by the day job, I was still richly rewarded by two very differing concerts that illustrated Britten’s versatility as a composer. The first was a guitar recital from Fabio Zanon at the Wigmore Hall. Britten wrote just the one piece for solo guitar, but contributed several other works for the instrument in the company of tenor voice, for Peter Pears and Julian Bream to perform.

Zanon, a pupil of Bream, built an intelligent recital, Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland at its heart. He began with two dances from Peter Philips, a Chromatica Pavana and Galliard, referring to Britten’s love of Elizabethan music, and these were delicately performed with a nice lilt to the meter. He then moved on to Bach, and one of his original lute pieces – the substantial Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in D major, BWV998, which crossed several different moods in its intricate fugue until a vivacious closing dance.

Then it was Britten, and a finely sculpted reading of the Nocturnal. The piece explores the many different moods of the night time, specifically the perils of insomnia, where every noise and thought are magnified. Zanon performed with a complete lack of fuss and pretence, drawing the watchful Wigmore Hall audience in to every note as he did so, with incredible detail in the quieter passages but a deep seated agitation and anxiety when the music became more troubled. When it arrived towards the end, the full quotation of Dowland’s Come, heavy sleep was remarkable for its simplicity, a pure and moving moment.

Zanon ended his recital with Granados and Sérgio Assad, though sadly it was back to work for me so I had to miss those moments – with the knowledge that The Sixteen and Harry Christophers were waiting at Islington’s Union Chapel, part of the Barbican Centre’s Britten celebrations.

This sublime setting did however illustrate why Britten would not have responded to composing in a big city, with sirens, traffic and helicopters in abundance during the quieter and more reflective moments of performance.

The program was largely well chosen, ranging from the sparkling early Hymn to the Virgin to the virtuoso late collection of settings, Sacred and Profane. In between were sets of songs, accompanied and unaccompanied, that showed off many different facets of Britten’s choral writing. Auden collaborations were represented by the bluesy (and rather mournful) Shepherd’s Carol and of course the peerless Hymn to St Cecilia, mandatory for any celebration of Britten’s birthday.

Christophers chose quite a fast tempo here – too fast for my liking but by no means invalid – and it was a radiant performance. Of special clarity and quality was the solo from Julie Cooper, whose ‘O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain’ brought a genuine and lasting tear to the eye.

The decision to split up the Five Flower Songs was curious. Positioned either side of the interval, they exhibited fleeting charm and were less effective than when performed as a group. In their midst came the Dances from Gloriana, which were excellent, with Mark Dobell a piercing and engaging soloist and harpist Frances Kelly an attentive accompanist. As throughout the concert the ensemble singing from the Sixteen was outstanding, and their diction beyond reproach – which was a help, since the lights were out and we could not read our programmes! Yet again though this proved the clarity of Britten’s settings.

We also heard The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, which to me remains a strange piece, rooted in its E flat major tonality, though the sound of a full bodied male chorus in this music was thrilling. The greater contrast was between the Hymn to the Virgin, where the treble chorus was placed up in the gallery, and the short but difficult cycle Sacred and Profane, with its remarkable virtuosity and fitful mood swings. The tricky Medieval English was mastered in this performance, and it was good to end the concert with a less familiar Britten work, showing just what a resourceful and flexible composer he could be.

As an encore we heard a rarity in the anti-war setting Advance Democracy, a favourite of Christophers’ – well sung but perhaps not the finest example of Britten’s word settings, with its rather clunky text from Randall Swingler. No matter – we had already fallen under Britten’s spell, and the Hymn to St Cecilia will stay as my lasting memory of his hundredth birthday.

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