Emmanuel Brittenia Rules the Eitherwaves

A contemplative Ryan Turner

Artistic Director Ryan Turner and video director Nathan Troup sent the finale of Emmanuel Music’s three-part Britten Chamber Festival to viewers last night. The remainder of the series of Canticles and some instrumental works completed this Britten installment.

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) spoke for the first 15 minutes, once again combining musical analysis with biographical detail and cultural insights. Her magisterial, concise and accessible introduction to Britten’s chamber music was packed with smart observations that enhanced the programs in this festival.

After more on Emmanuel Music, the concert proper opens at 34:36 with Canticle III: Still falls the rain for tenor, horn and piano (1954). Setting Dame Edith Sitwell’s poem (by full title “Still falls the rain – The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn”) this canticle, like the first (heard on the second concert of this festival) pays tribute to a lost friend. Recalling the wartime (the text) and infused with Britten’s pacifism and abhorrence of violence, this canticle specifically memorializes the young Australian pianist and composer Noel Mewton-Wood, dead by his own hand; its Wigmore Hall premiere took place during a concert in his memory on January 28, 1955 with Peter Pears singing, Dennis Brain on horn, and the composer at the keyboard. It draws on 12-tone harmonies and is structured as a series of six variations interspersed with recitative. In a dramatically underlit sanctuary of Emmanuel Church, Charles Blandy (tenor), Clark Matthews (horn), and Brett Hodgdon (piano) embodied this cantata for a fractured world. Written after The Turn of the Screw, there is in “Still falls the rain” a similar sense of unheimlich (Freud’s “uncanny” but also “unsettled”): the symbolic, spiritualist, and complex text combining Blitz and Crucifixion, the modernist harmonic language, and use of Sprechstimme combine to capture the rent fabric of the world. Blandy captured the elegiac sadness and the anger of grief, Matthews intoned the mournfulness written into the horn line, and to Hodgdon fell a complex and mercurial part he dispatched with accustomed profundity and panache.

Dissolving superimposition

At 46:09, Donald Berman provided an emotional reversal in Holiday Diary, Suite for piano, op. 5 (1934). Sunshine and happiness fill the four movements of this early work, among the few Britten wrote for solo piano. “Early morning bathe” opens with a dramatic gesture then the quick stillness of the shockingly cold plunge into the North Sea; a rapid and exciting music unfurls. “Sailing” is more languid in its melody and tempo, with a minimalism and calmness to begin before the wind picks up and sends white capped waves scampering across the horizon, then returning to a still summer afternoon. “Funfair” transports us to a lively carnival, full of action with a plethora of different sounds, musical lines talking over or dovetailing one another. “Night” rounds out this Suite, as tranquil sounds at a sedate tempo express this close of happy day, melodic curlicues tracing night wisps across this sonic landscape. Berman’s performance perfectly captured the spirit of this diary.

Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac for alto, tenor, and piano, op. 51 (1952), which began at 1:01:56, tells the Biblical story through the tradition of the Chester Mystery Plays. Composed after Billy Budd and before Gloriana, this operatic cantata is mature Britten. The musical material here sounds familiar, since Britten recycled it for the Offertorium of War Requiem, but in this canticle, the effect is vastly different. The two voices unite to express the voice of the Divine; separately, alto sings Isaac and tenor, Abraham and the writing for voices shifts to underscore these different roles. The writing pivots from floatingly eternal, ethereal, unadorned (almost prefiguring Arvo Pärt), to simple and innocent (notably Isaac earlier in this canticle), to agitated and wrought as the scene of sacrifice approaches. The pacing shifts accordingly, too. As the sacrifice approaches, pianist Brett Hodgon made the most of how the harmonies veer towards the more discordant. The envoi with the homily staggers the vocal lines into almost a responsory. Alto Deborah Rentz-Moore captured more of the child-like innocence of Isaac then the fear in this varied role. Turner portrayed Abraham in lower relief with emotions sung more subtly in a stylization more reminiscent of the Old English mystery plays.

Jennifer Slowik (oboe), Sarah Atwood (violin), Mark Berger (viola), and Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello) began the closer, Phantasy Quartet, op. 2 (1932) for oboe, violin, viola, and cello at 1:18:14. The composer was a teenager when he wrote this one movement work; it helped launch his career. Mosley explained how its multiple sections maintain an improvisatory affect and play with time across its many tempi; the opening theme serves as grounding principle for the whole. The cello announces a rhythmic figure, first expanded and disjointed then coalescing into a recognizable theme, which is then reinforced by pizzicato viola before the violin enters, arco; the oboe starts in a melodic vein. Later the strings take their turn with the floating, melismatic melody. The opening rhythmic figure is at times a legato phrase, sounding a wealth of possibilities as this phantasy develops. I am struck by the ways this is not written like a typical quartet; here the strings and the oboe seem to pursue different ends for much of the piece. It is not cross purposed, but it takes a different tack to writing for four simultaneous voices. There is modernity in Britten’s revision of antiquity, crafting startlingly au courant forms from historic roots, remaining captivating and engaging even as it forges new paths. The foursome collaborated with familiarity and ease, belying their ad hoc standing, and ending the festival on a high note indeed.

Performers in coal mines shouldn’t wear black.

With consistently high performing standards, this festival offers wonderful explorations of Britten’s chamber music writing, with much to appeal to varied musical tastes. While I would highlight the cello sonata and concluding Phantasy Quartet, others could just as readily argue the primacy of other offerings. The canticles are the more challenging fare, rewarding the attention given them; here, moreso than in the instrumental compositions, Britten grapples with the newness of his musical voice and bringing his idiom into the world. Grief and personal memorialization vie with musical memory and the history of a tradition; always, Britten emerges victorious.

This concert streams 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