Benjamin Dwyer’s Intriguing Britten Homage Unveiled by the Fidelio Trio

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Benjamin Dwyer, Ravel: Fidelio Trio (Mary Dullea [piano], Adi Tal [cello], Darragh Morgan [violin]), King’s Place, London, 11.10.2015 (CS)

Beethoven: Piano Trio in D, Op.70 No.1 (Ghost)
Benjamin Dwyer: Nocturnal after Benjamin Britten (world premiere)
Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor

Potential PhD students in search of a topic might profitably consider the issue of ‘Musical genealogies’.  From pastiche to pasticcio, parody to homage, re-arrangements to re-constructions, musical voices of the past continually and continuously echo down the tunnel of time – heard, acknowledged, rejected, feared, assimilated, celebrated in the work of the new.

The forebear of Benjamin Dwyer’s Nocturnal, after Benjamin Britten, is Britten’s own Nocturnal, after John Dowland, which was written in 1963 for the classical guitarist Julian Bream, thirteen years after Britten had first ‘re-imagined’ a Dowland song in Lachyrmae, Reflections on a song by John Dowland.  Britten’s composition is a tightly constructed work which openly reveals its own processes.  The theme of ‘Come, Heavy Sleep’ from Dowland’s First Book of Songs of 1597 is gradually revealed through eight variations – titled poetically, ‘Musingly’, ‘Restless, ‘Gently Rocking’ and such like – each variation taking us ever nearer to Dowland’s original which is finally disclosed in the ninth movement, ‘Slow and Quiet’.

Dwyer has remarked (in interview in Classical Music), ‘This piece is a homage to Britten, but it’s also a rejection of Britten’.  His Nocturnal treats the ‘second lute song’ from Britten’s opera Gloriana, using the same passacaglia form to ‘de-construct’ the original theme, presenting it in ever-diminishing fragments, paring away until the source is revealed.

The Fidelio Trio are committed to performing and commissioning new music, and have worked closely with leading international composers such as Charles Wuorinen, Michael Nyman and Toshio Hosakawa, as well as commissioning new works from Gerald Berry and Simon Bainbridge among others.  In this performance, their dedication to Dwyer’s composition was unwavering.  The demands, technical and expressive, of the work are considerable, and the Fidelio mastered its practical challenges and its musical obscurities.  (The complexities were further evident in the complicated arrangement of stands and chairs required to accommodate sheets of music and instruments – the violinist being required to switch between modern and baroque bows.)

The passacaglia variations moved through an array of meticulously crafted and defined moods.  Near the opening Adi Tal’s elegiac cello melody sang beautifully above the dissonant, darkly resonant piano chords, played with great sensitivity by Mary Dullea, with Darragh Morgan’s violin joining to add to the textural complexity.  Elsewhere Tal summoned real rhetorical power, the intonation true and the tone firm, before fading into haunting gestures.  Morgan manipulated the diverse array of bow strokes required with confident precision and sensitively: feather-like tremolos barely brushed the string, floating slides up the fingerboard called forth ghostly whispers.  Dullea was an assured presence throughout, as episodes of dry cold detachment alternated with moments of grotesque parody.  The metre is free – Britten had similarly used bar-lines only irregularly in his Nocturnal – and Dwyer’s music is characterised by a searching spirit, its intensity building not only through textural juxtaposition and change but also through the accumulating interactions of dissonant semitones.  At times I was reminded of the other-worldly quality of Essex’s lute-song, which is itself a revelation of ‘self’ and which interposes a moment of rhythmic repose and melodic expansiveness into the dramatic narrative of Gloriana, as time is suspended by Essex’s dreamy wistfulness, ‘ – Happy were he could finish forth his fate/ In some unhaunted desert …’

Dwyer is himself a classical guitarist, and Britten’s Nocturnal was the subject of his Master’s degree.  There is no doubting that he has both ‘got inside’ Britten’s music and also spoken with his own voice.  He has explained that writing this quasi-homage to Britten involved ‘acting like an insurgent – there are many things I have to reject.  It’s an interesting, but strange process.  It’s a painful process, because I’m having to kill off a hero […] [it]’s more than just a homage to Britten – in a way, it’s a homage to English music as well.  There’s this idea of a layering of history of English music within this piece that Britten wrote, and I’m responding to that.’

This notion of ‘layering’ is inherently present in the passacaglia form; but the form should, ideally, generate movement towards the conclusion; otherwise, why should the variations ever end?  Britten’s final movement achieves this, to some extent, by withholding the major key tonality until the revelatory statement of Dowland’s theme.  But I did not feel this same force, or ‘inevitability’, driving through Dwyer’s work.  This may be partly because of the elusiveness of the melodic progression.  And perhaps also because in Britten’s work the ‘heavy sleep’ – however disturbing and dark – does eventually come, whereas Essex’s dream is unattainable.  Admittedly, though, it is hard to take in a piece on one’s first hearing, and this composition asks much of the listener in both musical and intellectual terms.  It would be good to hear the opportunity to hear it again.

There were haunting echoes, too, in the opening work of the recital, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D, Op.70 No.1, commonly known as the ‘Ghost’ Trio, a nickname acquired after Beethoven’s famous piano student, Carl Czerny, declared that the second movement reminded him of the ghost of Hamlet’s father.  The Fidelio Trio generated bright excitement at the opening of the Allegro vivace e con brio, playing with rhythmic vigour and directness.  There was some occasional cloudiness of texture in the exposition, but the section ended with a beautifully tapered diminuendo, and the development was characterised by a powerful sense of furious invention and spontaneity.  Moving between restraint and release, the Fidelio communicated the music’s fluent, organic progress and while they moved persuasively through the structure, they were not afraid to take time and make space between sections and phrases.

An emotional retreat was effected by the eerie coolness of the string duo’s three-note ‘question’ which opens the Largo assai ed espressivo, and which was answered mournfully by Dullea’s distant piano entry.  These tense, ominous beginnings were to acquire rhetorical power as the dark melodies were repeated. I was impressed by the way that, despite the music’s frequent dramatic pauses, interruptions and eruptions, the players communicated the coherence of the whole, as sensitive phrasing and finely centred tone in the strings were counter-balanced by the rhetorical drama of the piano part with its low murmuring growls and registral contrasts.  After the mysteries of this middle movement, the Presto brought light and relief, the spring-loaded opening statement serving as a trigger for an unstoppable outpouring of flowing melodic pyrotechnics which the Fidelio breezed through with ease and joy.  Particularly notable was the real clarity and definition of Dullea’s playing, despite the plethora of notes with which the pianist must contend.

The Fidelio Trio seemed perfectly attuned to the spaciousness and Classical elegance of Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor which ended the programme, and it was here too that the grace of Morgan’s playing really came into its own, particularly in the Modéré where the violinist’s lines were beautifully phrased and perfectly balanced despite the metrical displacements of strings’ themes.  The string players’ crystalline tone was countered by the note of urgency which Dullea’s left-hand line introduced, and there was a sense of driving forward from the bass line.

The second movement is titled Pantoum, the name referring to a poetic form originating in Malaya which was in vogue in France at this time, employed by Hugo, Verlaine and Baudelaire among others.  Ravel adopted the overlapping repetitions of the poetic form to integrate the two contrasting themes of the movement.  In the first, the Fidelio articulated the vibrant pizzicatos and staccato quavers with real incisiveness and drive, the metrical dislocations recalling the second movement of Ravel’s String Quartet.  Dullea graded the dynamics with firm control, the richer swells blooming and retreating excitedly; Morgan’s snapping left-hand pizzicatos, flashing open E strings and ringing harmonics dazzled.  This was virtuoso playing of the highest musical and expressive quality.

The Passacaille brought calm and, with the entry of Tal’s melody in answer to Dullea’s statement of the theme, sincerity and gravity, qualities which were enriched and imbued with warmth by Morgan’s subsequent statement of the theme high on the G string.  In this movement there was a lovely contrast between the resonance of Dullea’s full chordal textures and the serene tranquillity of the string players’ imperturbable melodies, played with inconspicuous vibrato.  At the close, Tal interacted expressively with the piano bass as the movement gently faded to a close.

The Finale is an extravagant, almost over-abundant, rondo, but the Fidelio harnessed its riches and the massively scored, incessantly fortissimo effusions were never overwhelming, rather a compelling wave of restlessly changing sonorities, triumphant swirling gestures and relentless energy.  Ravel described this movement, written just as World War I broke out, as expressing his ‘insane heroic rage’.  The Fidelio certainly conveyed the music’s wild urgency but there was a satisfying joyfulness too.

Claire Seymour

1 thought on “Benjamin Dwyer’s Intriguing Britten Homage Unveiled by the Fidelio Trio”

  1. As usual, Ms Seymour trembles at the knees at the performance of any work with a connection (however tenuous) to her beloved Benjamin Britten. I wish that she would be alive to the fact that Britten (unlike Tippett – a much better and braver human being) was not prepared to live up to his responsibilities during WW2 and ran away to America. Working class men without Bitten’s means had no choice but to face up to their responsibilities to defend their country and people such as my father who served in India and Burma during the war properly (in my view) held such cowards in the highest contempt.


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