Britten’s Inner Beauty Casts Its Spell

United StatesUnited States Copland, Britten, Shostakovich: Toby Spence (tenor), Robert Ward (horn), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 19.6.2014 (HS)

Copland: Danzón Cubano
Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 in A minor

San Francisco Symphony may be a bit late to the Benjamin Britten Centennial party, but it’s making up for lost time this month. On a program that also included Copland and Shostakovich, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas featured Britten’s elegiac Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Next up: a semi-staged Peter Grimes.

Toby Spence, heard recently as Antonio in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of Thomas Adès’ The Tempest, wrapped his pure, high tenor around Britten’s music as if he were born to it. He negotiated the altitudinous tessitura with ease and grace, allowing the words of the six poems used in the song cycle and the rapturous musical line to emerge with clarity and unmistakable meaning.

The work got off to a magical start with the orchestra’s principal horn, Robert Ward, intoning the quiet opening solo on valveless horn with much more than simple precision. There was shape, there was meaning, there was emotionally centered intensity in his playing. As the music unfolded through its 30 minutes, Ward’s sound (now on his valved instrument) melded seamlessly with Spence’s, draping the music with a fine web of softness. The occasional eruption of crispness contrasted well, too.

With his first utterance, the opening lines of Charles Cotton’s “Evening,” (“The Day’s grown old, the fainting Sun/Has but a little way to run”) Spence caught the fleeting evanescence—of fading away—that permeates all the songs in this cycle. But these are not songs of sadness or grief, at least not in Britten’s settings. They are an exploration of beauty, in this case the wondrous wistfulness of appreciation for life lived with grace. Even the song indicated as a dirge, a setting of an anonymous 15th-century ballad, proceeds at a pace that’s more a march than a funeral slog. In this song, as in others, Spence consistently found an inner beauty to exploit without losing the dark side of the words. As Spence and the orchestra wound John Keats’ “To Sleep” down to hushed repose, Ward’s offstage reprise of the opening pages cast a spell that had the audience catching its breath.

For contrast, the second half of the program turned to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, his final work in the genre. Why Shostakovich? In part because Britten and Shostakovich shared a personal and musical friendship, and they stood at the acme of their nations’ musical worlds at the same time in the 20th century. In the 15th, Shostakovich is looking back on his life, and his fraught relationship with the powers that be in the Soviet Union, even delving further into musical history by repeatedly quoting Rossini and Wagner.

Musicologists can argue over what Shostakovich meant by appropriating the galloping theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture in the opening movement, and Wagner’s “Annunciation of Death” music heard as Brünnhilde attends the death of Siegmund in Die Walküre and Siegfried in Gotterdämmerung. As Wagner did, Shostakovich alters the music with each repetition. (The shorter Rossini quote comes back intact each time, but in Shostakovich’s own altered version. Make of that what you will.)

In any event, this music embeds itself into a thoroughly Shostakovich-ian symphonic format, for which Tilson Thomas has shown a flair with this orchestra. The bounciness of the opening movement, with the recurring Rossini reference, emerged from a quiet bell tone, and kept threatening to take off before it snapped to a close with the crack of a whip. The Adagio that followed brooded and expanded on its rich harmonies, principal cellist Michel Grebanier and concert master Alexander Barantschik baring their souls in their individual solo turns. The Scherzo, which never gets quite as nasty as some of the composer’s others, still showed a sardonic side that Tilson Thomas navigated deftly.

The finale, with the welling-up of Wagner’s low-brass chords and timpani pulses presented with heart-stopping anticipation, wafted off into explorations of other timbres and emotional touch points before coming to its quiet conclusion. Amid the distant chattering of xylophones and bell tones against an open-fifth sustained in the strings—it was a magical close.

It may have made sense that Tilson Thomas opened the concert with the six-minute trifle Danzón Cubano by Aaron Copland (another close friend of Britten’s), but the rather lurching performance added little to the proceedings.

Harvey Steiman

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