The Poet’s Echo, Op.76 – for high voice and piano (August 1965, Britten aged 51)
2 My heart…
4 The nightingale and the rose
6 Lines written during a sleepless night
Dedication For Galya and Slava (Galina Vishnevskaya and husband Mstislav Rostropovich
Text Alexander Pushkin
Clips from the first recording of The Poet’s Echo, with Galina Vishnevskaya and Benjamin Britten. With thanks to Decca.
2 My Heart
The nightingale and the rose
Lines written during a sleepless night
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s international appeal was at its height in the mid-1960s, helped considerably by the friendships he enjoyed with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Rostropoviches, Mstislav and Galina – who continued to use her surname Vishnevskaya when performing.
She had of course already appeared in one Britten work, the War Requiem, and was by now a regular performer at the Aldeburgh Festival. Britten and Pears found themselves back in Russia in the middle of their so-called ‘sabbatical year’, 1965, but because Britten could not live without composing he set about writing a collection of songs for her, his first for a female voice since A charm of lullabies in 1947.
For a while Britten had been considering setting Russian texts, and upon alighting on these six poems of Pushkin, compressed them into a cycle that lasts a little over 15 minutes. For the setting of the Russian language he was helped by his Russian friends, and on performing the finished piece Galina declared herself delighted by Britten’s understanding of them poet. He had ‘succeeded in penetrating the very heart of the verse’.
There was an extraordinary moment during the first performance of the cycle, given at the Pushkin House Museum. On performing the last song, Lines written during a sleepless night, the clock struck midnight in complete synchronization with the music. Pears recounts how the performers and their small audience stood rooted to the spot, aware of the poet’s portrait looking down on them from the wall.
The Britten-Pears Foundation entry for the piece looks at the title itself, declaring The Poet’s Echo to be useful because ‘no matter how much the artist may strive to convey his message, it is his destiny to receive no response from an uncomprehending world. Thus in the first song, the soprano’s opening lines are ‘echoed’ by the piano in close canonic entries which trail away into nothing each time. Graham Johnson describes the songs that switch ‘with volatile energy from inconsolable loneliness to expansive glee’.
Britten’s music reflects the Russian text, and is more expansive in style than the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, but is still pretty austere nonetheless. There is a remote quality to the soprano voice here, especially when in its upper range it hits the high notes in isolation, while the piano operates at a much lower level.
Perhaps for this reason, and for the Russian language barrier, I found it difficult to connect with most of the songs here, with two notable exceptions. These were My heart, which I felt was in thrall to Tchaikovsky with its more tender asides, and The nightingale and the rose, where the voice floats with deceptive ease and had me holding my breath at the end. Meanwhile Lines written during a sleepless night revisits Britten’s restless nocturnal world, the tick tock of the piano part brilliantly realised.
Again, Britten’s music packs considerable emotional weight. The ‘savage howl’ of the first poem, the ‘maiden singing up the hill’ – both are sharply depicted in the composer’s writing for the soprano, which often has just one single piano line for company, an open but sparse texture. Meanwhile ‘Satan sullen and rebellious’ is portrayed in the stern piano writing of Angel, supporting the massive, full bodied singing of the soprano here, while the song occasionally references the close intimacy of Midnight on the Great Western from Winter Words.
Having listened to The Poet’s Echo on a number of occasions, however, I find it unremittingly straight faced and sombre, difficult to approach and ultimately warm to. It is effective, for sure, but not easy music to comprehend.
Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Joan Rodgers (soprano), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Susan Gritton (soprano), Iain Burnside (piano) (Signum Classics)
Katherine Broderick (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Vishnevskaya has an extremely penetrating voice, and when coupled to the sharply recorded timbre of Britten’s piano the first recording has a severity that is hard hitting. Her capacity to hold long notes, as at the end of My heart, is astonishing.
Because of this the other three recordings listed above are pale in comparison, though they too contain many good things. Joan Rodgers sings with impressive conviction as part of an excellent collection of Russian Songs on Hyperion, including hard to find cycles by Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Susan Gritton gives plenty of power and poise to her version with Iain Burnside, part of the very good Britten Abroad disc on Signum Classics. Katherine Broderick offers a younger, fresher view in the company of Malcolm Martineau, though her vibrato is noticeably wider at times.
This playlist offers three versions of The Poet’s Echo, headed by Vishnevskaya and Britten and including Broderick and Martineau and a recording made by Susan Bullock, again with Malcolm Martineau at the piano.
Also written in 1965: Ligeti – Requiem
Next up: Sweet was the song