Saturday, 26 October 2013

Recital: Britten songs

Bishopsgate Institute Great Hall
22 October 2013

Maureen Forrester singing the Charm of Lullabies.

A nocturnal song cycle was the highlight of this committed survey of the composer.

The City Music Society somehow arranges free lunchtime recitals of impressive quality. This one was devoted to Benjamin Britten’s songs, commemorating his upcoming hundredth birthday. It was a very useful survey of this aspect of the composer, conveying a good sense of his strengths and weaknesses.

Britten is startlingly parochial, which makes little sense, as he was drew upon non-Western influences as well as non-British ones. Yet he returned to say, Purcell, or folk songs (both illustrated here) not in the spirit of promoting them or making them relevant to a modern (international) audience, but rather in a much more personal manner, as if trying to make them part of his own oeuvre.

It's as if he were a musical version of architect John Nash, looking upon the design of Mughal buildings as a blueprint for the Brighton Pavilion. That's harsh on Britten, who does a much better job of creating something   that can be appreciated internationally from his musical tourism.

The composer's clear, chilly style is especially well-suited to folk songs. I’m not sure the warmer Purcell benefits from being adapted by Britten, but the folk songs certainly do.

The cabaret songs are only a modest success, no patch on Weill/Brecht or even Eisler/Brecht, despite the fame of some of Auden’s verse (Funeral Blues) and Britten’s music (Tell Me The Truth About Love). I doubt either artist felt more than temporarily comfortable in this idiom. Bitterness, sarcasm, lust, political anger – none of this is really present in these charming but slight works.

The greatest work in this concert was the Charm of Lullabies. Night's mystery suited Britten perfectly, and he produced several song cycle masterpieces on the subject, including this one.

The lasting impression is one of death and darkness, without a trace of sentimentality, though mixed enough with charm, in charisma and magical senses, to prevent the mood souring completely.

Anna Huntley has a powerful mezzo voice, projected with great force, which sometimes threatened to be too much for this venue. But a dramatic approach works well with these songs; Britten was a major opera composer after all.

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