United Kingdom Britten Series – Dowland and Britten: Allan Clayton (tenor), Timothy Ridout (viola), Sean Shibe (guitar), James Baillieu (piano). Wigmore Hall, 4.1.2020. (AK)
Full credit is due to the Wigmore Hall for having the courage to present their Britten Series. Sadly, Britten is a hard sell, especially away from the opera stage, furthermore away from works for large choral and orchestral forces. Yet the Wigmore Hall was very important in Britten’s musical life! Twenty of Britten’s compositions were premiered in the Wigmore Hall and when the hall faced difficulties in the 1960s, Britten and Pears provided strong support.
It was encouraging as well as heart-warming to see a relatively large number of young people in the audience for this concert. They might have attended owing to Wigmore’s under-35s scheme or of the relative youth of the performers. However, the under-35s scheme operates for many concerts and young performers are not unusual at Wigmore concerts. It is likely that the hard work promoting Wigmore’s Britten Series is paying off by, evidently, successfully attracting attentive audiences from a variety of ages. The focus of the entire audience during the whole of the concert was palpable and, for me, deeply satisfying.
Songs and instrumental works by John Dowland (1563-1626) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) provided the ingredients for this exemplary concert which drew attention to Britten’s appreciation of Dowland as well as to the nature of his connection to the guitar. In addition, all pieces on the programme evoked the spirit of the Britten-Pears musical partnership which left an immeasurably rich legacy for future generations.
Tenor Allan Clayton seems a natural inhabitant of the Dowland-Britten world. He beautifully downsized his strong voice and larger than life personality for the Dowland songs which he performed with guitar player Sean Shibe. Clayton sat next to Shibe – as if to emphasize the equality of the musical partnership – his vocal dynamics ranged from sotto voce to speaking level. He told the stories with vocal nuances, without any artificial effects.
Shibe is an exceptional guitar player with astonishing technique and spellbinding musicality. However, I would have loved to hear the Dowland songs accompanied by a lute rather than a brilliant guitar player drawing lute-like sounds from his guitar. My longing for the lute was also present at the opening number of the concert, Dowland’s short Preludium for solo lute. Interestingly, Shibe’s concert attire seemed to be a nod to the John Dowland picture shown in the programme notes and also available through Internet searches. (Curiously, internet searches bring up similar pictures about William Byrd, 1543-1623.)
I was not longing for original instrumentation in the Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex from Gloriana (1953). Britten used harp, not a lute; Shibe’s poetic guitar playing was perfect for the song which was first performed by Peter Pears (at the premiere performance of Gloriana at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1953). Clayton brought more drama to his voice (than in the Dowland songs) and was fully credible as the designated singer (for the part of the Earl of Essex) on the opera stage. This particular performance seemed to me more like a lute song, as Britten’s title specifies, than with Britten’s original instrumentation in opera houses. In fact, Peter Pears often included this song in his recitals with guitarist Julian Bream.
Britten’s Songs from the Chinese (Op.58) was composed in 1957 after Bream managed to persuade Britten to compose for the guitar. The six songs use Chinese texts in Arthur Waley’s translation. The guitar parts are very tricky – especially in ‘The Big Chariot’, ‘The Autumn Wind’ and in ‘The Herd-Boy’, the latter of which seems to suggest ox riding in the guitar part – but Shibe made all of it look just natural and easy. Clayton used larger dynamic range then in the earlier parts of the programme but never above the appropriate Wigmore Hall level: he clearly knows the difference between Lieder and opera.
In his Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland, Op.48, Britten quotes his Dowland song only in the final section (that is in the tenth variation) but the mood and virtuosity preceding the appearance of the theme heightens the beauty of the Dowland material. Composed for viola and piano, the viola part may represent Britten (who played the viola as well as the piano) although at the first performance – Aldeburgh Festival, 1950 – William Primrose was the viola soloist with Britten accompanying him at the piano. This time Timothy Ridout excelled on the viola with his self-effacing command of the instrument and with his respect for the Dowland period: his playing the final (Dowland) section without any vibrato was breathtakingly beautiful. Ridout’s viola is slightly larger than the average viola size but he does not seem to have any technical problems. Interestingly, his viola was made by Zanetto around 1565-1575 that is soon after Dowland was born: after all this time, Zanetto’s viola and Dowland’s melody had a very happy meeting in Ridout’s capable hands. As for pianist James Baillieu, I can only say that he fitted into Britten’s pianist shoes perfectly.
Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op.70, for guitar, is based on Dowland’s ‘Come, heavy sleep’ which was the last of the four Dowland songs performed earlier in this concert. As in Britten’s viola variations Lachrymae, here too the Dowland tune appears only at the final section; after eight extensive, complex and technically challenging sections. Julian Bream premiered the c.14 minutes long piece at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1964. Here, at this concert, Shibe held his audience spellbound throughout.
This Way to the Tomb (1945) to Ronald Duncan’s text and Winter Words, Op.52 (1953) composed to Thomas Hardy poems constituted the final section of the concert. Britten’s two song cycles for voice and piano – by now with the piano lid open and with tenor Clayton standing – reminded us of the Pears/Britten musical partnership, the spirit of which lingered in the Hall throughout. Clayton and Baillieu gave us committed, thoughtful and dramatic performances. Baillieu provides rock-solid but discreet support and Clayton seems to be the perfect Britten singer (as well as the perfect Dowland singer, I hasten to add). Britten’s future is in good hands.
For an encore the four performers delighted us with their slight rearrangement (for voice, guitar, viola and piano) of Britten’s arrangement of the Appalachian folk song ‘I wonder as I wander’ for voice and piano. With his rendering of this song, tenor Allan Clayton took us to the essence of pure singing.