Cardiff’s Royal College of Music hosts an interesting birthday tribute to Benjamin Britten

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten: Adrian Thompson (tenor), Michael Pollock (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 22.11.2019. (GPu)

Adrian Thompson (c) Gregor Monkiewicz

Britten – Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22; Winter Words, Op.52

November 22nd being the anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth (in 1913) and also St. Cecilia’s Day it was doubly fitting that the day’s lunchtime concert at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama should consist of performances of two of Britten’s finest sets of songs (he seems generally to have fought shy of applying the term ‘song-cycle’ to his own work, though it would surely be appropriate for both Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo and Winter Words).

It is some years since I last heard Adrian Thompson sing live (and that was in opera), but my memories of him were decidedly positive.

The Seven Sonnets have a kind of biographical, as well as musical, significance. It was the first (of many) works Britten dedicated to Peter Pears. Interestingly, of the seven poems (out of more than 300) which Britten selected from Michelangelo’s poetic oeuvre, six are amongst those in which Michelangelo addressed his relationship with Tommaso Cavalieri, his beloved and muse. Any audience familiar with Michelangelo’s poetry would surely have realized that, in a ‘code’ that was far from difficult to decipher, Britten was, in these settings, also writing about his relationship with Peter Pears. If they were alert enough, they might even have found confirmation in what effectively becomes a bilingual pun in the opening line of the last sonnet in this sequence:

Spirto ben nato, in cu’ si specchia e vede
nelle tuo belle membra oneste e care
quante natura e’l ciel tra no’ può fare,
quand’a null’altra suo bell’opra cede

Here we are surely invited to read/hear in the Italian word ‘ben’ an echo of the familiar form of the composer’s first name?

James M. Saslow (The Poetry of Michelangelo, 1991) translates the four lines thus:

High-born spirit, in whose pure and precious limbs
there can be seen, as if within a mirror,
how heaven and nature can create among us
a work which yields in beauty to no other

But, of course, wholly independent of any such biographical interest, this set of seven songs is one of the finest achievements in the history of English song (as is Winter Words). Song after song is both emotionally powerful and musically subtle, whether that be in the vehemence of the music and feeling in the second song (Sonetto XXXI), or the softer,  almost ‘nocturnal’ idiom of the third song, in which Britten creates a beautiful response to Michelangelo’s text, full of imagery of eyes, sunlight and moonlight. And here seems the place to state my one unease, my one disappointment in this recital. Throughout most of the Seven Sonnets and parts of Winter Words Adrian Thompson, to put it very simply, seemed to me to sing too loudly, or at any rate to make too few adjustments of volume and timbre in response to the differing natures of the songs. At times, indeed, he seemed to be forcing his voice to levels of volume at which it didn’t sound entirely comfortable. I missed the gradations of volume and tone I have heard, for example, when listening to Philip Langridge sing these songs (both in the concert hall and on record). At the time I wondered whether this was a matter of a man who has sung a great deal of opera (and done so very well) not quite adjusting to the different demands of the song recital and of this relatively small concert hall (rather than the opera house). A little later I wondered if he wasn’t a little nervous – which would have been surprising in such an experienced singer (I will return to this later). Though this problem didn’t destroy my enjoyment of Britten’s remarkable achievement in these songs – which were clearly enjoyed by many around me in the audience, it wasn’t what by previous experience of Thompson’s singing had led me to expect.

In the Hardy settings there was, on the whole, more flexibility in terms of dynamics and timbre in Adrian Thompson’s singing. This was certainly desirable, as there is a greater variety of mood in these eight poems by Hardy (only one of which actually comes from the collection Hardy himself called Winter Words) than there is in the seven poems by Michelangelo. All eight, however, are unified, amongst other things, by their reference (with varying degrees of explicitness) to childhood and therefore to that most recurrently central of Britten’s subjects – innocence and its possible corruption or loss. Thompson was thoroughly persuasive in his interpretation of  ‘Midnight on the Great Western’. I am sure that I cannot be anything like the first to think of this as a kind of ‘Erlkönig’ for the railway age, with Britten’s boy seen on the moving train being every bit in as much danger as his ‘cousin’ in Schubert’s song. (An interesting piece could surely be written on the ways in which Schubert’s songs often cast ‘shadows’ on Britten’s.) What Hardy silently says to (and of) this ‘journeying’ boy – and Thompson articulated the repeated melisma on ‘journeying very attractively – might as readily be said of the boy in Schubert’s song, with its text by Goethe – that he is travelling through a ‘region of sin that you find you in / But are not of’.  Equally successful was the performance of ‘Wagtail and Baby’, though I can never quite rid myself of the sense that Britten is guilty of a degree of tweeness here. The final song of the cycle ‘Before Life and After’ is a million miles from the twee, however. In its subject it has things in common with the first song, ‘At Day-Close in November’. Even so, the sparseness of ‘story’ or ‘character’ in the final song prompts from Britten music which is more ‘abstract’ – there is no scope for musical onomatopoeia here (unlike some of the earlier songs in the cycle) – music which has to evoke larger realms of space and time. Much of that evocation is to be found in the superb piano part and here, as throughout the whole recital, accompanist Michael Pollock was outstanding.

During the recital itself, such spoken introductions as were provided were left to Michael Pollock. It was only ahead of the demanded encore that Adrian Thompson spoke to the audience for the first time. Thompson is a member of the vocal faculty at the Royal Welsh College – a necessary context for what he said: ‘I have felt rather nervous up here, with so many people I have taught in the audience. They have, I suspect, been sitting there thinking “Well he talks a good game but can he do it…”’. His final words were obscured by friendly laughter. So perhaps my earlier suspicion, mentioned above, that he was nervous, wasn’t wholly wrong? He then proceeded to announce that their encore would be Britten’s setting of ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ – a piece favoured as an encore by Britten and Pears at many of their recitals. Suddenly, as if feeling freer, Thompson’s voice had a greater sweetness!

So, although I had some reservations – mainly with regard to the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo – this recital paid a fitting tribute both to Benjamin Britten and to music’s patron saint.

Glyn Pursglove

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