BBC Prom 41

Commissions from the Japanese
government and Serge Koussevitsky had resulted in the Sinfonia da
(1940) and Spring Symphony (1949) respectively; now added
to these earlier works was a new composition, the Cantata
commissioned for the centenary of the International Red
Cross, and first heard at their celebrations in Geneva just a few days

Prom-41---Alan-Oke.gifAlan Oke

It was Ronald Duncan, the librettist of the Rape of Lucretia, who
once remarked that Britten had told him that “he never had a purely
musical thought unrelated to a verbal context”*. Certainly, the absence of a
‘straightforward’ symphony from Britten’s oeuvre might
suggest that he was not naturally inclined towards ‘pure’ symphonic
structures and approaches. However, this performance by the BBC Symphony
Orchestra was conducted with conviction and insight by Mark Wigglesworth
(deputising for an indisposed Jiři Bělohl·vek), and his superb
crafting of the complex and at times problematic architecture of these works
revealed the composer’s control of symphonic form and mastery of
instrumental colour.

The Cantata Misericordium relates the New Testament story of the
Good Samaritan, the chorus framing and commenting on the action as presented by
two soloists — a Traveller (baritone) and Samaritan (tenor). The text is
wholly in Latin and this lends an air of formality which both the BBC Singers
and the excellent soloists, Leigh Melrose and Alan Oke, sustained without
becoming overly stylised or austere. Indeed, the soloists’ drama was
earnestly related, building to a moving climax during the attack upon the
Traveller which culminated in an intense, chromatic choral outburst.

Prom-41---Christine-Rice.gifChristine Rice

Wigglesworth handled the continuous form, with its clearly delineated
sections, with great skill, subtly controlling the rhythmic tensions which
establish a forward-moving pulse. He fashioned a coherent narrative which moved
from the tightly-controlled motivic statements of the instrumental introduction
(drawing beautifully tender playing from the solo string quartet), to a more
expansive close, the rich concordant harmonies of the full orchestra suggesting
relaxation and reconciliation.

Wigglesworth revealed a similar appreciation of form in the Sinfonia da
commissioned to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese
empire, but ultimately declared unsuitable, its sentiments considered
insufficiently triumphant, overly religious and inappropriately Christian in
nature. The three movements — Lacrymosa, Dies Irae and Requiem Aeternam
— cohered seamlessly. After a thunderous opening, the Lacrymosa moved
eerily and relentlessly, erupting in an energized scherzo — a frenzied
‘dance of death’ — which, seeming to have exhausted itself,
in turn was replaced with the more subdued calm of the final movement.

Prom-41---Leigh-Melrose.gifLeigh Melrose

But, it was in the Spring Symphony that Wigglesworth demonstrated
even greater insight, successfully creating a logical whole from the various
parts of Britten’s multi-movement score. Initially Britten referred to
his Spring Symphony simply as ‘the Symphony’ and wrote to
Koussevitsky in January 1947, ‘I am planning it for chorus & soloists
… but it is a real symphony (the emphasis is on the orchestra) &
consequently I am using Latin words’**. Things turned out rather differently: the large
forces include a boys’ choir (here the Trinity Boys Choir) and extensive
orchestra (triple woodwind, four percussionists, two harps), and the fifteen
English texts are arranged into 12 numbers, organised into four separate parts.
The result is perhaps closer to a cantata form than a conventional classical
four-movement structure but, moving naturally and instinctively through the
series of scene settings and choral dances, Wigglesworth located and sustained
a narrative line, as we progressed from winter to spring, experiencing the
reawakening of earth, and thereby fully avoided the sense that this work is in
any way an ‘orchestral song-cycle’.

Typically, Britten constructs chamber-like ensembles from the diverse
instrumental forces available to him, and conductor and orchestra were alert to
the nuances of colour which portray the various aspects of spring and reveal
Britten’s sensitive response to his chosen texts. After quiet beginnings,
a trio of triumphant trumpets accompanied Alan Oke’s exultant heralding
of the arrival of ‘The merry cuckoo’; in ‘The Driving
Boy’, Amanda Roocroft’s charming and eloquent depiction of the
‘driving boy beside his team … Cracking his whip in starts of
joy’ was decorated by dancing woodwind and tambourine; glassy sul
strings evoked the gentle evening rain in the setting of
Vaughan’s ‘Waters Above’. Christine Rice carefully shaped
Auden’s ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’ at the close of Part
2, accompanied by an atmospheric wordless chorus. In the final movement, above
Oke’s descriptions of May festivities, from Beaumont and Fletcher’s
The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a primitive cow horn marked the end
of the journey from winter to spring, and called all the people to join in the
celebration of the return of life to the earth.

Prom-41---Mark-Wigglesworth.gifMark Wigglesworth

In 1963 Britten began his Promenade concert with a performance of his own
arrangement of Henry Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor. For this
occasion, the BBC had commissioned Joby Talbot to prepare a new arrangement,
and Talbot provided an exciting, dramatic score, which in its exploitation of
instrumental contrasts, and use of small groupings within the large orchestral
forces, was suitably Brittenesque. Talbot’s version may have lacked some
sense of the inevitable unfolding of Purcell’s ceaselessly evolving form,
but it certainly highlighted the rhythmic vitality and freedom which
underpinned both Britten’s and Purcell’s work.

Claire Seymour

* Duncan, Working With
(The Rebel Press), p.103.

** In Humphrey Carpenter,
Benjamin Britten (Faber), p.278.

image_description=Amanda Roocroft [Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou]
product_title=BBC Prom 41 — Purcell, arr. Joby Talbot: Chacony in G Minor
Britten: Cantata misericordium; Sinfonia da Requiem; Spring Symphony
product_by=Amanda Roocroft, soprano; Christine Rice, mezzo soprano; Alan Oke, tenor; Leigh Melrose, baritone. Trinity Boys Choir. BBC Singers. BBC Symphony Orchestra. Mark Wigglesworth: conductor. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 14th August 2011.
product_id=Above: Amanda Roocroft

Photos: BBC/Chris Christodoulou