Verdi and Britten. And Beethoven?

 ItalyItaly Verdi, Britten, Beethoven Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome. Conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano. Ian Bostridge (tenor). Alessio Allegrini (horn) Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome. 25.5.2013. (JB)

Verdi, Quartet in E minor in the orchestral version
Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op 31
Beethoven, Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op 67

You can be fairly sure that Benjamin Britten would have been chortling with something like schoolboy delight to have been sharing his centenary with Giuseppe Verdi. Leave aside for the moment those critics who say that the War Requiem is little more than a crib of the Verdi Messa da Requiem. They have a point. But that is often a way one composer has of showing his indebtedness to another. If it were possible to get inside the mind of a composer it would not be surprising to find music of other composers he admires. So why the surprise when some of the remembered music comes out? Even less surprise when it is regurgitated. And anyway, regurgitation is always more complex than this oversimplified explanation.

In March 1873, Verdi was amusing himself in a Naples hotel while waiting for Teresa Stolz to be well enough to sing the lead in Aida; he began regurgitating ideas on manuscript paper that turned out to take the form a string quartet: a musical pastime, you may say. Verdi considered his scribblings inconsequential. A group of friends played the quartet to another small group of friends in the Naples hotel. World premiere would be too grand a term. But anyway, it took place on 1 April 1873. (two days after the delayed opening of Aida.)

The manuscript never left Naples. It ended up in the collection at the Naples Conservatory, which happens to house the most important collection of manuscripts in Europe. In the nineties, when Roberto de Simone was the Director of the Conservatory, he made it his business to thoroughly organize and catalogue the collection. When I was involved in auditioning musicians for a youth orchestra at this time, with Piero Farulli (viola of the Quartetto Italiano) also a member of the jury, Roberto, at one of the audition intervals, took us into the library, opened a glass case and placed the Verdi manuscript in Piero’s trembling hands. The Quartetto had, of course, given many performances of the E minor masterpiece. It was an awesome experience for Farulli. Even for those of us who witnessed it.

Sometime in 1877 Verdi received a request from a London orchestra asking permission to perform the Quartet with twenty players to each of the four parts. Why not? was the maestro’s modest reply. Thus began a tradition of what would become known as the orchestral version. This had its attraction for certain conductors. In particular that fraud of all frauds, Arturo Toscanini, whose entire career was manufactured by a supremely effective publicity machine. Toscanini took to using the Scherzo as one of his favourite encores. It was technically complex and his players were capable of performing without a conductor so no one noticed that the man wasn’t actually doing anything. But no. I err. He did somehow manage to underline a symphonic conception, which must have been entirely absent from Verdi’s thoughts. There is a You-tube recording of this horror for the curious to hear.

However, in the much safer and more sensitive hands of Sir Antonio Pappano, both the intimacy and the charm of the original are preserved, while the sonority is also impressively increased. Verdi’s voice is there –sometimes understated, and all the more meaningful for that- in every bar. Respect for the composer was never a Toscanini speciality. I was hearing this orchestral version for the first time. I especially appreciated what is essentially the trio section of a scherzo (third movement) which was given to a solo cello, even if Luigi Piovano weighed in a little too lushly with this solo. I feel sure it would have been even more effective if it had followed Maestro Pappano’s understatement guidelines.

Understatement is there too in Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Benjamin Britten and his lifetime lover, the tenor, Peter Pears, were both conscientious objectors. They had spent the first years of the War in America, returning to London in 1942, where bombs were still falling. Even the daytime felt like Night, which is the subject of the six poems which Britten set for the Serenade. Pears, of course, was the tenor. The horn player was Dennis Brain, arguably the greatest exponent ever on that instrument. Walter Goehr conducted at the premiere which took place on 15 October 1943 at the Wigmore Hall, the Edwardian drawing room still in use for London’s most intimate music making. You might say this was the Britten – Pears war effort. This bleak, dark music found a place in the heart of the nation then called Great Britain.

The two thousand eight hundred seats of Sala Santa Cecilia are too many for the intimacy of this music. Moreover, I guessed it would be difficult for a Rome audience to enter into the sombre, despairing atmosphere of 1942’s London. I was wrong. And that was because of the perfectly judged sensibilities of the conductor and performers. All the more remarkable when you know that non of the three go back in life as far as 1942..

The orchestra’s principal horn, Alessio Allegrini, gave a finely judged performance to rank with Dennis Brain’s. The beauty of tone throughout was moving, especially in the harmonics which can present problems to lesser players. The first and last of the eight movements belong to the horn, with the final part played off stage. That was particularly effective with the lights dimmed and going out altogether after the last note. Which of course, the lights did all too frequently in the London blitz. There was a pause before the audience came back to earth and broke into tumultuous applause.

Ian Bostridge was a distinguished academic in the field of English literature before he became a singer. This sounds in the excellence of his performance. Britten enters into the soul of the six poems. And so does Dr Bostridge. Some of the settings lie uncomfortably low for his voice. They must have been too low for Pears too. But Britten wants the effect of being unable to arrive at an understanding of the soul’s dark nights. Just like the poets. The unachievable challenge is fitting. Poets, composer and tenor were entirely in tune in what they didn’t and couldn’t achieve. Bostridge is firmly in the Pears tradition: whatever is missing in the voice (and to my ear there is a lot, but this is not the place to go into that) it is more than made up for in the profound musicianship.

I was somewhat dismayed by not being able to hear the words of Bostridge’s songs, with the exception of the Blake and Keats settings, whose words I know from memory. Even with the English text in front of me, I could not make out his words. Surprising. On every other occasion I have found Bostridge’s diction impeccable.

Antonio Pappano sustained exquisite balance both vertically and horizontally. He too had entered in the poets’ souls.

The blood and thunder of the Beethoven fifth came as a sharp contrast after the interval. Special praise to the orchestra’s wind and brass and the outstanding timpanist, Antonio Catone. Something incongruous about this choice too. Verdi didn’t think that much of Beethoven and Britten wrote him off as a tub-thumping bore. But the Rome audience were grateful for this earthiness after the challenges of the first part of the concert.

Jack Buckley