20th Century English Composers Celebrated in York

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Orpheus Britannicus:Yvonne Seymour (mezzo soprano), Helena Daffern (mezzo soprano), Adrian Thompson (tenor), Stephen Varcoe (baritone),Victoria Bernath (viola), University of York Chamber Choir, Peter Seymour (piano and conductor), National Centre of Early Music, York, 9.2.2013

Concert 1
Britten: Canticle 1 My beloved is mine
Grainger: I’m seventeen come Sunday
Britten: Choral Dances from Gloriana
Grainger: Brigg Fair
Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel
Concert 2
Britten: Canticle 2 Abraham and Isaac
Ireland: The Three Ravens
Bridge: Three Songs for mezzo, viola and piano. Far, far from each other, Where is it that our soul doth go? and Music, when soft voices die
Vaughan Williams: The New Ghost, Silent Noon and Linden Lea
Britten: La belle est au jardin d’amour, Quand j’étais chez mon père, Tom Bowling and Little Sir William

The Britten centenary celebrations are already well under way and York University’s contribution was an English Song Day, a series of three events and an evening pre-concert discussion under the title of “Orpheus Britannicus”. The concerts took place at the National Centre for Early Music, formerly St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate – a gem of a building with clear ringing acoustics situated in one of the quieter corners of historic York close to Walmgate Bar, well away from the hordes of tourists. York University has one of the most enterprising music departments in the UK, mainly due to the achievements of its founding father the great much lamented Professor Wilfrid Mellers whose eclectic tastes still resonate at the University today. He would have relished these concerts.

The programmes all began with one of Britten’s Canticles and continued with a mixture of songs and choral pieces by Britten as well as his teachers John Ireland and Frank Bridge. We also heard works by Vaughan Williams, who recommended Britten to the RCM, and Grainger who was one of Britten’s lifelong enthusiasms. The guiding hands behind the programming were baritone Stephen Varcoe and York University’s Peter Seymour, who accompanied the various singers and conducted the York University Chamber Choir. I was unable to attend the evening concert but the lunchtime and afternoon programmes were both full of aural nourishments for lovers of English music.

Tenor Adrian Thompson opened the first concert with Canticle 1 “My beloved is mine”, surely one of Britten’s finest love songs for Peter Pears. I found Thompson’s voice at its best in the softer more lyrical passages but sometimes his declamation was too loud and overwhelmed the sensitive piano playing of Peter Seymour. By the time we reached Grainger’s “Brigg Fair”, later in the programme, Thompson’s voice had adjusted nicely to the acoustics.

York University Choir sang some arrangements (re-compositions is a much better description!) of folk songs by Grainger. “Brigg Fair “was famously used by Delius as a set of orchestral variations after Grainger had made his arrangement of this folksong from Lincolnshire (which just happens to be my own native county!). Grainger’s is a heart stopping setting of a most beautiful heartbreaking melody with the tenor floating magically over a wordless choir, perfectly captured in this performance. “I’m seventeen come Sunday” is a much more robust and upbeat folk song and was projected by the choir with crisp diction and well tuned ensemble work. The University Choir also gave us the Choral Dances from Britten’s 1953 coronation opera Gloriana reminding us of the riches contained in that much maligned score.

Britten was famously selective about his musical tastes and Vaughan Williams was not on his list of favourites despite Britten and Pears making a splendid recording of VW’s On “Wenlock Edge” in 1945. In this concert we heard a baritone perform Vaughan Williams’ “Songs of Travel”, one of the works in which VW’s distinctive voice emerges for the first time. The cycle of nine songs is a kind of English “Winterreise” without all of Schubert’s darkness and despair. Songs of Travel capture a love of the bracing open air and countryside which was to be swept away by World War One and mass mechanisation. Stephen Varcoe projected all of the various moods to perfection although there were occasional moments when his voice was strained in the upper register. Is there a more beautiful song in the English repertoire than “Let beauty awake”? If so I have not yet heard it.

In the afternoon concert there was no choral music but the singers from the first concert were joined by mezzos Yvonne Seymour and Helena Daffern. Yvonne Seymour’s sensitively sung contributions included VW’s “The New Ghost” and “Linden Lea”, the latter song once immensely popular but not often heard these days, and demonstrating how the melodic contours of English folk song fertilised his own compositional voice.

Britten’s Canticle 2 “Abraham and Isaac” for mezzo and tenor voices is a setting of the famous parable using words found in the Chester Miracle Plays. The mezzo part of Isaac was originally written for Kathleen Ferrier but her part is often sung in modern performances by a counter treble or boy alto which is more effective in clearly differentiating the vulnerability of the father and son relationship. After all this work is yet another exploration of Britten’s lifelong obsession with the destruction of innocence. WB Yeats’ words “The ceremony of innocence is drowned” might be a motto for the whole of Britten’s output.

The opening of “Abraham and Isaac” is one of Britten’s most inspired passages with the voices in close harmony over widely spaced piano arpeggios. I felt we needed a younger fresher sounding voice for the young boy Isaac than Yvonne Seymour’s though her voice was always warm in tone and well balanced with Adrian Thompson’s Abraham. His singing in this work was for me the highlight of the concert, wonderfully dramatically focused and lyrical.

Frank Bridge’s Three Songs for mezzo, viola and piano were sung with deep feeling and warmth of tone by Helena Daffern, a graduate of York University. Bridge composed these songs in early years of the 20th Century and their darker romantic tone is typical of the earlier Bridge before he developed his more original adventurous voice. Some beautiful viola playing from Victoria Bernath reminded us of the influences from Brahms’s Songs Op 91 for the same combination. Helena also sang a lovely arrangement of “The Three Ravens” by Ireland.

Britten’s Folk Songs arrangements are often even more quirky than Grainger’s and have not always been universally liked, but the spicy dissonances of “Quand j’étais chez mon père” make it far more ear catching than if Britten had used conventional harmonies. The more melodious “Tom Bowling” and “Little Sir William” are both among Britten’s most popular folk song settings, and were mellifluously sung by Adrian Thompson to end the second recital.

Let’s hope the Britten centenary will continue to give us performances of more of his less frequently heard works and that we can hear him in true context alongside his predecessors and contemporaries as a truly great international composer writing at a time when the second British musical Renaissance was at its peak.

Paul Hearn