In addition to the Verdi and Wagner bicentenaries, 2013 also marks the 100th birthday of Benjamin Britten. Although Britten’s operas are nowhere near as popular as those of Verdi and Wagner, many have nonetheless become part of the standard repertoire. I don’t know Britten’s music very well, apart from his Violin Concerto, and I figured that there was no better time to learn than this year. As Peter Pears seems to be rather polarizing, I decided to start with Nicholas Phan’s newest Britten recording, centred around the composer’s collaborations with various artists. I started out a Britten novice, and came out a fan an hour later – surely a testament to the quality of this recording!
One thing that I’ve often heard about Britten’s music is that it can be academic and rather bloodless – on this recording, at least, that is definitely not the case. The Fifth Canticle for tenor and harp, for instance, is almost shockingly graphic. The text, by TS Eliot, is rather vague on its own, but Britten’s music makes its meaning very clear. Also on the album is his Third Canticle for piano, horn, and tenor, based on a poem by Edith Sitwell. Sitwell’s powerful poem speaks of the bombings in London during WWII, and Britten enhances the emotion by alternating the tenor stanzas with horn solos. When the tenor and horn finally come together it’s incredibly powerful, reflecting the hope of Sitwell’s poetry. It’s not a short piece, around 11 minutes, but it never drags thanks to the intense performance from Phan, pianist Myra Huang, horn player (hornist? horner?) Jennifer Montone, and above all Britten’s skill in building up the emotional tension. Originally written as a stand-alone piece, Britten later made it the centrepiece of an arrangement featuring other poetry by Sitwell. Some is set to music, although much shorter in length, and others are simply text – actor Alan Cumming provides the ultimate luxury casting for these readings. All of the poems are similar in tone and atmosphere, and as a result further heighten the emotion of the Third Canticle and forms a wonderfully coherent work.
The other major piece on the album is his late “A Birthday Hansel”, which has nothing to do with the fairy tale. Rather, it’s a song cycle accompanied by harp, based on poems by Robbie Burns. The songs are lively and direct, reminiscent of folk music, but the range of the voice and harp are fully exploited to create a dazzlingly wide range of colours and moods. The rest of the CD is composed of Britten’s folksong arrangements, accompanied by either voice or harp. To me, these were what tipped me into the Britten fandom – simple, melodic songs that I grew up with (the one British element in my otherwise westcoast upbringing) with often unexpected and always interesting harmonies. Opera singers often tend to have difficulties with folksongs – what do you do with those simple melodies? Do you go for Schubertian word painting, or do you add verismo-esque effects to add emotion? Thankfully, Phan knows better and simply performs the music. Besides, his vocal and intellectual skills speak for themselves, with his incredible diction worth singling out. I’ve already mentioned Jennifer Montone’s beautiful playing, but the recording also features harpist Sivan Magen and pianist Myra Huang. As with all good chamber musicians, you never feel that they are simply ‘following’ the voice – instead, they are musical equals and brilliant performers in their own right.
As a whole, it’s a wonderful, varied recital that was a great introduction to Britten’s vocal music. Although I have no point of reference, all of the musicians (and one actor) were excellent, and it was an unusually involving recording – not really something to listen to as background music! Apologies, by the way, for my less-than-brilliant insights into the music – I usually try to only review recordings where I know the music/style reasonably well, but I thought it would be interesting to document my thoughts on Britten throughout his centennial year. Onto those operas now…