Britten, Part One

Reversing dissolves superimpose hands of pianist and violinist.

Emmanuel Music’s three-part Britten Chamber Festival, which offers a deep dive into the composer’s lesser-known, small-scale vocal and instrumental music, continues the 50-year-long musicmaking of this Boston institution.

Dr. Imani Danielle Mosley (musicologist, cultural historian, and digital humanist specializing in the works of Benjamin Britten; now Assistant Professor at The University of Florida) lent her expertise in the music of Britten for a lovely and loving pre-concert introduction to the music of Britten, noting that Britten’s Canticles, works spanning some 30 years of his compositional life, form the heart of this series. This talk begins the stream; there followed scrolling snippets of the history of Emmanuel Music followed, before Artistic Director Ryan Turner introduced the concert at hand.

The music begins at 34:40 with Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, op. 89 (1974), here performed by Jonas Budris (tenor) and Krysten Keches (harp), sets a text by T. S. Eliot composed in 1914 under the shadow of World War I and suppressed by the poet during his lifetime. The words summon images across the life of the titular martyr, combining saints Narcissus and Sebastian into one larger narrative, and infusing the whole with eroticism, homoeroticism, and masochism. I can only imagine the wrangling copyright conversations necessary for Britten to set this text and present it; it is a different portrait of the poet’s skills, and it holds meaning for the composer who wrote this canticle late in life after recovering from major surgery. Although we expect Britten to showcase the tenor voice in all the pieces he wrote for Peter Pears (and the vocal part here is no retiring shyness), what struck me this time is the virtuosic role for harp (originally written for Osian Ellis); it calls for tremendous command and the deftness of touch to fully voice these notes. Keches plucked a stellar variety of tones from the harp, and Budris brought command and presence to this sparse and exposed vocal line. The two together offered a compelling interpretation.

At 43:20 Rose Drucker on violin and Donald Berman on piano then gave Britten’s four-movement Suite for Violin and Piano, op. 6 (1935), The opening March begins with the violin pronouncing a theme traversing octaves; after the piano enters there is one moment recalling a march. This movement though comes closer to the apophthegmatic music of Webern; small gestures here sketch universes. In the second movement, Moto perpetuo, there is an Ivesian combination of the familiar and the new, alternating between lyricism and high Modernist fragmentation with the rapidity of perpetual motion. It is interesting to hear in this early Britten passages that seem to prefigure the spiky angularity and crunchy harmonies of post-WWII Shostakovich. The Lullaby (third movement) draws us into another world, one of soaring sweetness of melody and chordal support on piano; it certainly sounds as though here Britten responds to Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending, making of that floating tune a more complex and captivating soundscape. This is a lullaby for the urbane and adventuresome. The suite concludes with a Waltz which sounds a mashup of several generations of Austrian composers of the family Strauss. Lush romanticism combines with bravura virtuosity and tightly coordinated interplay between instruments. Drucker and Berman dispatched the tenderness and the pyrotechnics of this suite with ease and with grace.

The fourth canticle, Journey of the Magi, op. 86 (1971), for three voices and piano, premiered at Snape Maltings with James Bowman, Peter Pears, and John Shirley-Quirk; its text comes from a more widely known Eliot poem about a fabled voyage (remember those?). Beginning at 1:00:10 Doug Dodson (countertenor), Charles Blandy (tenor), David Tinervia (baritone), and Brett Hodgdon (piano) portray a polished and smart rendering of the musical notes comprising this canticle. Lines converge and diverge, homogenizing disparate potentates then distinguishing them into separate musical lines, floating between common practice and earlier musical modalities, fixed and fluid time. Underneath the piano returns to the rhythmic gait of the ships of the desert. The song shifts from the journey to philosophic reflections upon the occasion; the writing becomes more cerebral and disjointed even as the text calls attention to questions flung in the face of faith over the tumultuous twentieth century. Throughout the musicians performed beautifully. Blandy and Tinervia blended their voices affectingly; Dodson at times joined in, and did so well, but more often his vocal line stood alone and here the effortlessness of his countertenor shone forth. Throughout, Hodgdon captured the shifting sands of mood and subtext.

The final work (1:12:20) turned to Songs from the Chinese, op. 58 (1957), with Kristen Watson, soprano; and Zaira Meneses, guitar. Inspired by a concert tour of Asia which Britten took in 1956, the cycle marries Eastern poems (in Waley’s translations) and Western musical idiom. Combining the familiar sound of voice and guitar, and inspired by guitarist Julian Bream who premiered the work with Peter Pears, these songs turn the expected into the excitingly innovative. The anthology of traditional poems becomes the occasion for Britten to exercise his unique compositional voice. The guitar part here is multifaceted and Meneses effectively captured this congregation of changing affects. In the stone-chapel acoustic, Watson’s rounded voice gave a lovely projection to the stylings of this concluding song cycle.

Under Nathan Troup’s direction, this streaming concert achieved a high production standard. Having titles on screen for the start of each work made for a nice touch, as did the running song texts. During the violin suite, a series of reversing dissolves placed the hands of pianist and violinist on the screen simultaneously; that fittingly encapsulated the spirit of this chamber music. Throughout, I found the video editing to be sensitive and responsive. The lighting veered more towards dark and atmospheric; the acoustic varied across the spaces within Emmanuel Church. The Leslie Lindsey Memorial Chapel, in all its perpendicular Gothic Revival stonework, offered a nicely resonant and live acoustic for the Songs from the Chinese. Overall this stream captured the experience of a live musical performance in commendable fashion, and in some cases, like the last segment, went beyond, into a realm only possible in a choreographed video in which the peripatetic singer was captured with a wireless lavaliere mic.

The second and third installments of this festival follow this weekend. All three parts will stream HERE for the next 60 days.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra