United Kingdom Purcell, Tippett, Handel, and Britten: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Britten Sinfonia, Jacqueline Shave (director/violin), Richard Hetherington (conductor). Wigmore Hall, London, 22.11.2012 (MB)
Purcell: Abdelazer, Z.570: ‘Rondeau’
Purcell-Muhly: Let the night perish (Job’s Curse), Z191
Purcell-Stokowski: Dido’s Lament
Tippett: A Lament from Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’
Handel: Alcina: arias
Britten: Prelude and Fugue for eighteen-part string orchestra, op.29
Purcell-Britten: Chacony in G minor
Tippett: Little Music for Strings
Britten: Phaedra, op.93
I was a little puzzled to start with when I noticed that this concert was announced as celebrating Britten’s ninety-ninth birthday. Any excuse for a party, I supposed, but it might not have made sense to wait a year? Then I read a little further, to discover that it was launching a year’s events at the Wigmore Hall, to culminate in the centenary itself – also St Cecilia’s Day, by the way. As something less than a paid-up Brittenophile – some works I respond to far more readily than others: The Turn of the Screw I find a masterpiece, whereas Peter Grimes I obstinately continue to find grossly overrated – I suspect that I shall be more selective than some. Next year, after all, is Wagner’s bi-centenary, for better or worse, though in many respects I fear the worst. However, if any of the Britten performances I hear next year are at this level of distinction, I shall be fortunate indeed. (The Turn of the Screw from Sir Colin Davis and the LSO looks a good bet already…)
This programme played into an aspect of Britten’s career for which I have almost unbounded admiration, namely Britten as performer. Though I certainly do not share his antipathies – Brahms most notoriously, Beethoven too – I cannot help but admire so ardent a Purcellian, especially when his conducted performances of Purcell were, without exception in my experience, outstanding. The Rondeau from Abdelazar, famously chosen by Britten as the theme for the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, set the tone impeccably. Spirited, robust even, without a hint of carping, inhumane ‘authenticity’, this performance from the Britten Sinfonia, led by Jacqueline Shave, managed also to convey a hint of melancholy that stands at the heart of so much great English music from Byrd to Birtwistle.
There followed three pieces offering different sides of creation, re-creation, and thematic inspiration. Alice Coote joined the strings for Nico Muhly’s ‘realisation’ of Let the night perish, or Job’s Curse. If truth be told, Muhly’s part in proceedings pertained more to ‘effect’ than anything more substantial. (How unlike Britten’s own Purcell realisations!) Techniques employed – sudden high violin notes, cello tremolandi, etc. – might sound ‘clever’, but they are easily accomplished enough and seemed strangely unmotivated by text or music. Performances, however, were first-class, Coote’s part in proceedings exquisitely shaded – and what a way with words she has! There seemed more kinship with the Sorceress than with Dido, which, given the subject matter, makes sense. And the chilling diminuendo upon the final ‘grave’, would have implied the word even if her diction had been less impeccable than it was. Stokowski’s arrangement for strings – I say arrangement, but it verges at times upon transcription, though subtly so – of Dido’s Lament came next. Following on from Coote, one expected words, but once that loss was dealt with – very quickly in practice – we heard a deeply-felt rendition of a deeply-felt tribute, both when the richly expressive strings were heard orchestrally and in the poignant solo spots: violin ‘Remember me’-s especially.
Then came Tippett’s contribution to a composite work commissioned for the 1953 Aldeburgh Festival, each movement of which was to include a reference to Sellinger’s Round. Tippett’s piece is preoccupied at least as much with Dido’s ‘Ah Belinda’ as with the traditional dance tune. Purcell’s aria emerges fantasia-like, though with a sense of compositional refraction not so very different in principle from Berio’s orchestration of a Purcell hornpipe – but with an ineffable Englishness quite foreign to the Italian composer. Ornamentation, if that be the word, is expressive, not merely decorative, still less ‘effect’. One senses a pull already towards the Tippett of the symphonies. Once again, the Britten Sinfonia’s performance was compelling indeed.
Three Handel arias – there is a wonderful, indeed the most wonderful, recording of Handel Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day by Britten – completed the first half. Alcina is one of his finest operas; these arias were certainly gems even within that context. The warmth of the orchestral playing struck me immediately; this was not at all unlike the English Chamber Orchestra of old, Britten or Raymond Leppard at the helm. What a life-enhancing change from current fashion, in which so much as to utter the word ‘vibrato’ is to be discounted by the ayatollahs of authenticity! The Britten Sinfonia players, led as throughout by Shave, showed keen understanding of harmonic rhythm, above which Coote offered an imploring performance of ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’. Careful attention to words never detracted from roundness of phrasing. The B section was allotted to single strings (and harpsichord from Maggie Cole), reverting to fuller forces for the da capo, a similar practice being followed in the repeated lines of ‘Verdi prati’, which received a dignified, moving performance. ‘Stà nell’Ircana’ fairly brought the house down. The change of pace brought alert, exciting and thoroughly musical performances – again, no silly ‘effects’ – from all concerned. Coloratura was brilliantly but also meaningfully despatched, owing to Coote’s keen command of the words and their implications. There was welcome flexibility in the middle section. And what glorious horn playing from Stephen Bell and Chris Davies! I am not sure that I have heard a more ecstatic response from a clearly exhilarated Wigmore Hall audience.
Britten’s Prelude and Fugue, op.29, opened the second half. Written for the Boyd Neel Orchestra’s tenth anniversary, it is very much a Wigmore Hall work, having been premièred there on 23 June 1943. I wish I could say it convinced me as a piece. The Prelude works better, and received once again a rich-toned performance, thanks both to the fine acoustic and to the players. A sweet-toned violin solo from Shave found itself set against Shostakovich-like harmonies. Perhaps inevitably, given the forces, the fugue sometimes sounds like watered-down Bartók. It nevertheless received a committed, vigorous performance. I am not sure that it hangs together very well in formal terms though.
Britten’s realisation – call it what you will – of Purcell’s great G minor Chacony is an example to all who would follow. The players clearly understood and – just as important – communicated the nature of the form and its implications, in a performance that was as finely shaded as it was unfussy. This is a masterpiece and sounded like it, even if nothing, not even Bernard Haitink’s recent LSO performance, can quite match Britten’s own with the ECO. Tippett’s well-nigh neo-Classical Little Music for Strings, if not a masterpiece, is certainly a handy addition to the string orchestral repertoire. None of its four movements outstays its welcome; indeed, the finale wittily leaves one wanting more. The Prelude oddly seems determined to launch into the National Anthem, but never does. Counterpoint was throughout, not just in the Fugue, clearly and vigorously handled in a performance of great energy.
Finally came the real Britten, in his late cantata for Dame Janet Baker, Phaedra. This performance, conducted by Richard Hetherington, immediately thrust one into a sound-world which, unlike the earlier Prelude and Fugue, was unmistakeably Britten’s own – a sound-world, moreover, of the opera house. This is clearly the composer of The Rape of Lucretia, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most darkly, of Death in Venice. Performances once again were exceptional; I really could not, even if so inclined, find anything to fault. From the alert cello and harpsichord continuo of the first recitative through the savagery of the drums, to what sounds very much like a ghost of the Berg Violin Concerto in the interlude between the Recitative to Oenone and the Adagio to Theseus, the players of the Britten Sinfonia played as if their lives depended on it. Coote’s performance was simply outstanding. An early highlight was the colouring of ‘murderer’ in the first recitative (referring to Aphrodite and Phaedra’s mother), so as to impart a sense of a grey veil being cast over proceedings. There was a magnificently hieratic quality to the performance of the Presto to Hippolytus. And the final Adagio told us that, whilst we might be helpless in the face of the gods, we can evince a humanist pride too, one that belongs as much to Phaedra as to Prometheus. Whilst quite unlike Dame Janet’s recording, Coote had nothing to fear with that most demanding of comparisons.