Thursday, 3 October 2013

Britten: concert

Dances from the Prince of the Pagodas; Suite on English Folk Songs; Nocturne; Cello Symphony
Royal Festival Hall
2 October 2013

The masterful Nocturne, sung by Jerry Hadley. From here.

The Nocturne is a masterpiece, but other late works for concert hall are much less successful.

A collection of concert works with orchestra from Britten’s ‘late period’ from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. It’s the period when his sound changed, became more astringent, less appealing, though that needs qualification.

For Britten’s characteristic musical style, early or late, is something like a colder version of Debussy. His dread of sentimentality clearly went further than just a distaste of Puccini, or fear of becoming Puccini.

It’s this fear, and the underlying attraction to sentimentality that it fights against, that determines why his music sounds as it does. He attempts to combine Mahler with Debussy, which strikes me as doomed to fail, and a much worse choice than his contemporary Shostakovich, who wedded Mahler with Tchaikovsky.

Like Shostakovich, you feel a sense of kinship with the composer through his music. Britten emerges as a repressed hedonist.

The music of late Britten is not dark, contrary to the programme notes. It is etiolated, as if his earlier music had been aurally bleached or deprived of something life-giving.

I don’t mean it lacks vitality, or even interest; but we might reasonably regret, in the orchestral works at least, that the composer’s quest for refinement led to such little delight.

So unsurprisingly the most successful, and enjoyable, work here was the Nocturne song cycle. Always a great word-setter, Britten’s choice of texts fit his musical mood, and he created a magical complement to the equally fine earlier Serenade.

Mark Padmore sang beautifully, and has a fuller tone than the work’s dedicatee, Peter Pears (at least from recordings), though is equally comfortable with singing falsetto when needed.

He found more humour, I think, in the Midnight Bell central song than Pears did, but I’m not sure the variety worked – Nocturne is essentially an extended lullaby, creating a sense of delicate insomnia.

The Cello Symphony is also clearly a substantial work, but I found it uneven, and despite some very subtle quiet playing from the London philharmonic, I struggled to hear Truls Mørk’s cello, presumably intentionally recessed (repressed?) The work comes alive in the cadenza which leads to an energetic finale, almost lively.

The Suite on English Folk Songs, like Nocturne, shows off Britten’s late approach to orchestration, and like the Nocturne a series of miniature mood pieces plays to his strengths.

In contrast, I could scarcely stay awake during the excerpts from the Prince of the Pagodas ballet, which played to his weaknesses. An exotic tale, exotically orchestrated, ought to have inspired delightful music. Instead the drabness reminded me of the sea at Britten’s beloved Aldeburgh.

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