A Superb Festive Start to the Britten Centenary in Suffolk

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Britten, Poulenc: Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Temple Church Choir, James Vivian (conductor), Sally Pryce (harp). Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh. 8.12.2012  (MH)

Britten: Flower Songs (Polyphony)
Poulenc: Four Christmas Motets (Polyphony)
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols (Temple Church Choir, Sally Pryce)
BrittenA Boy was Born (Polyphony, Temple Church Choir).

The Benjamin Britten Centenary, masterminded by Aldeburgh Music, underpinned by the Britten-Pears Foundation and several national and regional organisations, got under way this weekend. To highlight Britten’s magisterial contribution to British music the organisers have planned an ambitious and imaginative programme of concerts featuring both amateur and professional musicians. The centenary will also foreground the composer’s artistic and personal connection with his roots in East Anglia, featuring an array of events with broad appeal.

Britten had a complicated relationship with his native county in general and with Aldeburgh in particular. As Peter Pears, his partner of forty years attested: Britten, as a discreet homosexual, a self-proclaimed pacifist, and a conscientious objector, never found life in post-war Suffolk easy. Matters were not helped by his political and social engagement and willingness critically to explore aspects of his milieu in his music. Yet beyond the complexities that characterised his life Britten stressed that his music was rooted in where he lived and worked – in the literature, landscape and seascape of Suffolk – a deep affinity that is acknowledged in this year’s centenary celebrations.

As for faith, although regarded by many as an agnostic, Britten once explained that he was a Christian ‘in his music’; while his friend, the composer Michael Tippett, went so far as to describe him as a ‘religious composer’. What is beyond dispute is that Britten loved Christmas itself, delighting in the traditional celebrations and finding musical inspiration in its time-honoured rituals.

Tonight’s concert featured two choirs: Polyphony, one of the most renowned and versatile professional choral ensembles in the world, conducted by their founder Stephen Layton; and the boy choristers from the Temple Church Choir under their conductor James Vivian. It also featured the prize-winning harpist Sally Pryce, who added lustre to the occasion.

The programme began with Britten’s Flower Songs Op 47(1950), five rather stylistically conservative settings that playfully capture the composer’s response to their subjects. In the first two numbers, ‘To Daffodils’ and ‘The Succession of Four Sweet Months’, Polyphony conveyed the transient loveliness of the daffodil and the diverse beauty of summer plants with rhythmic panache and subtlety of tone. In ‘Marsh Flowers’, a text by Aldeburgh poet George Crabbe that meditates upon the gloomy ‘flora of our town’ the ensemble communicated beautifully the beguiling melancholy, even menace in the music; while in ‘The Evening Primrose’, they captured the delicate sadness of music given to this most reclusive of plants. Polyphony had real fun with the last setting, ‘Ballad of the Green Broom’, a celebration of the classlessness of sexual attraction, revelling in the brilliant, witty part-writing without losing their hallmark rhythmic control and command of phrase.

Francis Poulenc, a member of the modernist group ‘Les Six’ and a composer whom Britten respected, regarded himself as primarily a composer of religious music. He voiced his vocation in Four Christmas Motets [Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël] (1952) for mixed chorus, settings of medieval texts dramatising scenes from the Nativity: ‘O magnum mysterium‘, ‘Quem vidistis pastores?’, ‘Videntes stellam’ and ‘Hodie Christus natus est’. Throughout Polyphony expressed the intensity and simplicity of Poulenc’s melodic writing with luminous dignity and poise, capturing the complex narrative of chaste innocence, foreknowledge of suffering and the exultation of Christmas with a rare degree of nuanced power and expressive assurance.

A Ceremony of Carols Op 28 (1942) was sketched while Britten was returning by sea to his war-torn homeland from the United States. It is therefore not surprising that it is a celebratory work, its medieval and Tudor settings conjuring up a child’s perception of Christmas: a time to celebrate (what might be called) the wonder of divine ‘magic’.

Scored for treble voices and harp, this technically challenging music explores vocal and instrumental resources to the full. From the start the Temple Church choristers displayed their virtuosity as well as their sensitivity to music and text by moving seamlessly from innocent simplicity (‘Hodie Christus natus est’), exuberance (‘Wolcum Yole!’), to mesmerising tenderness (‘There is no rose of such vertu’). The lullaby solo (‘That yongë child’) was beautifully sung, while they made the shifting harmonies and cross-rhythms of ‘Balulalow’ glow with devotional intensity. Equally well done was the celebratory mood in ‘As dew in Aprille’, while they handled the dashing two- and three-part canons in ‘This little babe’ with amazing ease. After Sally Pryce’s rapt, meditative interlude, the choir returned to remind the audience of tension surrounding Christ’s vulnerability (‘In freezing winter night’) before sweeping us up in optimism and joy (‘Spring Carol’), finally to arrive at the radiant affirmation of the ‘Deo Gracias’ that precedes the recessional chant. On the evidence of tonight’s performance Temple Church is justifiably proud of its choir and their conductor. James Vivian’s boy choristers sang Britten’s demanding score with intelligence and verve, and the soloists handled the pressures of a big occasion with professional aplomb. Sally Price’s elegant accompaniment was exemplary, while her solo playing revealed rare technical prowess and an expressive, silvery sound of exceptional beauty.

Britten first revealed his talent for transforming the traditional into something arrestingly new in A Boy was Born Op 3 (1933) in which he re-fashioned old carol melodies and (mostly) centuries-old texts into a set of ambitious choral variations, a ‘celebration of old customs’, with which he announced his arrival as a young and brilliant force in English music. Scored for mixed unaccompanied choir and trebles, Polyphony and the Temple Church choristers joined forces for the last work of the evening.

A Boy was Born which is, it must be said, something of a youthful show-piece, combines elements of the Christmas narrative into a mini-drama that provides the one of the work’s many challenges. It is essential that the variations are richly differentiated. The ensemble began and continued with confidence, setting out the core motive, heard in the first four notes of the opening carol (‘A Boy was Born’) before gliding into the first variation, a lullaby (‘Lullay, Jesu’), in which the voices tenderly answer each other while maintaining a subtle rocking movement. The mood change in the second variation (‘Herod’) was also well executed as Polyphony’s tenors and basses vigorously condemned the tyrant’s cruelty until interrupted by the sopranos and altos who guided them mellifluously into a celebration of the Redemption. In the third (‘Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour’) a return to the contemplative was skilfully achieved as the boy soloist exquisitely floated above a prayer chanted by a solo quartet; while in the fourth variation (‘The three kings’) the royal pilgrimage to the manger was evoked with lucid and balanced part-singing. The ensemble handled variation five (‘In the bleak midwinter’), to Christina Rossetti’s text with sensitivity, with the sopranos and altos setting the chilly scene, while the trebles sang the traditional Corpus Christi carol with impressive clarity. In the sixth and final variation (‘Noël!’), the exuberance and inner joyfulness of Christmas returned, in which the ensemble displayed their command of bright and vibrant phrasing, crystal-clear articulation and incisive rhythmic control while maintaining the taut athletic lines of the music.

It is difficult to imagine better performances of these works, an excellence that honoured Britten’s own insistence on the highest standards. Stephen Layton and James Vivian conducted their forces superbly while both choirs distinguished themselves in a tough programme.

The Snape Maltings Concert Hall, a world-class music-space caressed by the hushed beauty of reed-filled marshes, provided the perfect venue for tonight’s programme: a fitting and vibrant monument to a vision of music as a civilizing, embracing, democratic force in society. Tonight’s appreciative audience unquestionably went home in good spirits having experienced an evening of exceptional music-making: a memorable, festive start to the Britten centenary.


Meirion Hughes