Hall of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, London
21 November 2013
Britten's Canticle 1, performed by Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano).
A full performance of Winter Words would have been welcome, but this recital admirably conveyed the range of Britten's songwriting.
Now though, the conflict between modernists and traditionalists (romantics, neoclassicists) seems misguided, and we can admire the romantic Ralph Vaughan-Williams quite as much as the atonal Harrison Birtwhistle.
Britten retains a prominent place as a music dramatist, the greatest in English opera by a large margin (competing only with the Gershwins and Rogers & Hammerstein). That isn’t meant to be damning with faint praise: in the last century English-language is the most illustrious form of contemporary music drama.
This remarkable free concert highlighted another of the composer’s strengths – his songs. The centrepiece, selections from his Winter Words, made me wonder why more composer haven’t been influenced by Schubert’s Winter Journey. Perhaps they have; perhaps I only know of Britten’s homage because I am British. In any case, it’s a benign influence and the work retains the potency of its predecessor.
Britten’s first Canticle, setting the obscure Jacobean poet Francis Quarles’ My beloved is mine, and I am his, is a little unsettling. It is obviously a love song to Peter Pears, who sang it and many other works, but is it exhibitionist, or prurient? And if we consider it ahistorically, is it really any good? I‘m not sure. It felt overlong.
The rest of the programme comprised lighter works, including the ever-popular arrangements of Purcell and folksongs.
Tenor Nicholas Allen has an appealing voice, and of course seemed influenced by the recordings of Pears in this repertoire, which can’t sensibly be a criticism. Pianist and mastermind Gavin Roberts joined Allen in providing helpful explanations of the songs and choices.