Light and Darkness in Britten Centenary Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Bernstein: Rachel Chapman (soprano), Diana Moore (mezzo soprano), Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor), Rick Wakeman (narrator), City of Bristol Choir, Westbury on Trym Parish Church Choir, Leckhampton CE Primary School Choir, Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra / David Curtis (conductor), Tewkesbury Abbey, Tewkesbury, 19.10.2013. (RJ)

Arr, Britten – National Anthem
Bernstein – Overture to Candide
Britten – Psalm 150, Op 67
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op 34
Spring Symphony, Op 44

With St Cecilia’s Day (and Britten’s birthday) fast approaching the musical world is gearing up for a final flurry of celebrations for the Britten centenary.

The inclusion of a short work by Leonard Bernstein in this concert was very appropriate for the American composer/conductor was one of the first to appreciate features in Britten’s music that others did not: “When you hear Britten’s music …… you become aware of something very dark. There are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain.”

The darkness and pain, however, were not obvious during the first half of this concert which began with a setting of the National Anthem composed for the Leeds Festival of 1961. The stately tranquillity of the opening verse helped to make the final outburst of patriotic fervour all the more impressive.

No Britten celebration can or should ignore his tremendous output of music for children. Two youth choirs from Westbury on Trym and Leckhampton (Cheltenham) made a truly joyful noise in his setting of Psalm 150 which he had composed for the centenary of his prep school in 1962. The dance-like section beginning ‘Praise Him in the sound of the Trumpet’ was given a spirited performance with the orchestra joining in the joyful melee complete with clashing cymbals, castanets and harps.

Also composed with young people in mind is his Young Person’s Guide which started out in life as an educational film, The Instruments of the Orchestra, directed by Muir Matheson for which Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and spoke the narration. Nowadays it tends to be performed as a concert piece without any breaks for an explanation, so it was refreshing to hear it in its original form with Rick Wakeman narrating from the pulpit. The audience were treated to such gems as “the woodwind are superior versions of the penny whistle and are made of wood”, “the cellos sing with a splendid richness and warmth” and “the double basses are the grandfathers of the string section”. Mr Wakeman was on splendid form, enunciating the words with clarity and warmth, and the musicians also played their part impeccably in bringing out the distinctiveness of their various instruments.

The second part of the concert was devoted to Britten’s Spring Symphony in which the composer demonstrates his considerable grasp of and feeling for English poetry combined with his supreme ability to set it to music. Most of the poetry dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and is by writers such as Edmund Spenser, Robert Herrick and John Milton. Unlike Schumann’s symphony with the same title this work is prone to undercurrents of darkness and self-doubt.  The opening poem George Chapman’s Shine out, fair Sun had a particularly bleak, wintry feel about it with the choral passages underlined by quiet contributions for the percussion and violins playing in a high register. However a final crescendo from orchestra and choir did the trick; Spring finally burst forth and after a trumpet fanfare Richard Edgar-Wilson launched into Spenser’s The Merry Cuckoo. Soon he and the other soloists were imitating bird calls in Spring the sweet spring, after which the Westbury on Trym choir performed The driving boy with Rachel Chapman. The main choir gave Milton’s The morning star something of a lilt before becoming more serious – a return to Britten’s angst-ridden beginning perhaps?

In the slow movement the lower strings brought dark undercurrents to Herrick’s To Violets which, though respected, are also neglected; and this added extra poignancy to Diana Moore’s singing. The upper strings bowed sul ponticello to evoke a gentle shower of rain in Vaughan’s Waters Above sung so serenely by Richard Edgar-Wilson.  Diana Moore returned to sing with a wordless chorus the only contemporary poem in the selection, Auden’s Out on the lawn I lie in bed, in which the apparent calm was interrupted momentarily by a violent orchestral tutti as Germany’s invasion of Poland was recalled.

The third movement, a scherzo, opened with When will my May come in which Richard Edgar Wilson sang the hopeful, yet fearful lover to the accompaniment of harp arpeggios. Proof that the path of true love never runs smooth came in the duet Fair and Fair in which he took the role of Paris with Rachel Chapman as his mountain nymph lover, both of whom are affected by Cupid’s curse. Blake’s Sound the Flute for chorus and orchestra ended the movement on a more upbeat note.

Finally Merrie England really came to life in the spirited setting of a poem Beaumont and Fletcher for full orchestra, choirs and a cow horn played by Paul Broekman. In the resonant Norman nave of Tewkesbury Abbey a great deal of the detail got lost unfortunately and in many ways I preferred the earlier movements with their somewhat spare, but extremely effective,  accompaniments which supported rather than competed with the voices. The work was first performed in 1949 at the Holland Festival by luminaries like Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier when the composer was 35, and one cannot help feeling that it points forward in construction and sentiment to his much more famous War Requiem.

This was an evening of splendid performances which offered different insights into Britten’s music. Choirmaster David Ogden had brought his singers up to a peak level of performance with help from Miriam Hartley (Leckhampton), the words came through expressively and clearly from the soloists. David Curtis managed his musical forces, including the excellent Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, with his customary precision and flair.

Roger Jones