Britten’s Lachrymae at Wigmore Hall

Composed for its dedicatee, William Primrose, who premiered the work at the
1950 Aldeburgh Festival, Lachrymae once again occupied Britten in the
final months of his life, when he returned to the work in order to arrange the
original piano accompaniment for string ensemble, charging the relationship
between soloist and accompanists with increased tension and concentration.

The viola was Britten’s own instrument and so often — as in the
passacaglia in Peter Grimes, or the second movement of the two
Portraits for strings, written when he was just 17 years old, or the
Third String Quartet, composed shortly before his death — is seems to be
the instrument through which he speaks most personally. In Lachrymae,
inspired by Dowland’s melancholy song ‘If my complaints could
passions move’, Britten’s own voice converses discursively with
voices from the past, creating an ambience of ambiguity and mystery.

Soloist Lawrence Power conveyed the searching hesitancy of the melodic line
with probing eloquence. Although the opening is tentative — a quotation
from Dowland’s song is introduced and submerged in a low-lying register
in the accompaniment — Power established his presence and poise, while
sustaining the air of expressive mystery. The viola’s fragments of
quotation from Dowland, haunting snatches of an archaic sound world, were
poignant lyrical utterances when juxtaposed with the uneven, unstable, more
modern instrumental fabric.

Martin Brabbins deftly shaped the unfolding exchanges between soloist and
players, and within the ensemble, crafting interchanges suggestive of
conversation and quotation. There was a sense of distancing and translation:
from voice to viola, and from Elizabethan past to modern present. The
co-presence of Dowland’s compositional voice and Britten’s
idiosyncratic idiom seemed both curious and inevitable, the two held in balance
and in alternation throughout.

Brabbins was concerned with the minutiae of the score but also controlled
the whole form as the sequence of variations (or ‘Reflections’ as
Britten called them) progressed towards the full revelation of its source. From
the shadowy opening of the Lento, with its muffled tremolos and muted una
playing, the piece built in intensity. The approach to the
interruption of this evolution by the viola’s statement of the Lachrymae
of the title, Dowland’s Flow My tears’, in Reflection 6 was
electric; and Brabbins’ emphasis on the vivid textural contrasts,
complemented by the viola’s direct utterance, made for a powerful and
moving climax.

Britten’s innate and renowned sensitivity to words can seem wasted on
Rimbaud’s somewhat self-indulgent poetry, which expresses the
nineteen-year-old Frenchman’s sense of excitement when faced with the
thrilling potential of modernity and new frontiers, and which the composer set
in the instrumental song cycle, Les Illuminations. Britten himself was
only 26 at the time of composition, but it is clear that he already had an ear
for French idioms and rhythm. And, this was emphasised further by soprano
Sandrine Piau’s beautiful, understated enunciation of her native
language, highlighting by turns the languid repose and racy energy of the

This was a commanding, polished performance, one which retained the
sensuality of Rimbaud’s animated, colourful outpouring but which also
maintained a certain distance, clarity and composure. ‘Villes’ was
light and airy, Piau momentary blossoming when the poet-speaker exalts:
“Old craters, encircled by colossi and palms of copper, roar
melodiously in the fires”. The string lines and voice are very
much of equal import, the latter often melodically subordinate to the on-going
instrumental discourse; Brabbins and the players of the Nash Ensemble were
firmly focused, alert to the instrumental arguments and colourings which
embrace the voice. The violins’ dance-like melodies in
‘Antique’ were wonderfully undulating and sinuous, while the
march-like tune in ‘RoyautÈ’ had real rhythmic bite.

In the latter, Piau revealed her wit and humour; but she was equally at home
with the more prosaic recitative of ‘Phrase’, producing an
incredible gracefulness at the very top of her register, and dancing
weightlessly through the glissandi, accompanied by delicate string
harmonics. The virtuosic twirls and runs of ‘Marine’,
“tourillons, tourillons’, and the constant and surprising shifts of
mood, presented no difficulties. After the drolleries of the opening of
‘Parade’, Piau’s gleaming rich sound bloomed in the ecstatic
‘final’ phrase: “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade
sauvage.” (“I alone hold the key to this savage parade!” Her
ability to convey diverse nuances in different contexts was strongly evident
here: this phrase appears in both the opening ‘Fanfare’ and the
‘Interlude’ but Piau drew completely different meanings from the
phrase through tone and articulation. This was a fresh and direct performance,
which received a well-deserved rapturous reception.

Fittingly, for the work received its world premiere in the Wigmore Hall in
1943, the concert concluded with the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and
. This was an almost overwhelmingly intense rendering, both
soloists — tenor John Mark Ainsley and horn player Richard Watkins
— performing from memory. Ainsley was movingly expressive and eloquent;
but, for me Watkins was the star of the whole evening, every note intelligently
conceived and produced with supreme technical mastery, the considerable
challenges of Britten’s writing for the natural horn despatched
effortlessly. In the opening ‘Prologue’, Watkins manipulated the
inherent out-of-tuneness of the instrument to marvellous effect. Throughout the
work his phrasing was beautifully judged, nowhere more so than in the haunting
echoes of ‘Nocturne’. Elsewhere his golden legato and glowing tone
simply took my breath away.

Ainsley’s flexible, relaxed opening phrase in ‘Pastoral’
— rounded, perfectly placed and beautifully poised — set the bar
for the rest of his performance. ‘Nocturne’ was elegant but
unfussy, the dialogue between voice and horn. In the extended horn preface and
postlude of ‘Elegy’ Watkins’ eerily descending semitones
powerfully embodied the sense of sin which Blake’s troubling verse
obliquely conveys. The darkness which settled over this number carried to
‘Dirge’, as Ainsley’s insistent, increasingly fearful tone
brought the shadows of nightmare into the hall, the high keening of the
tenor’s melody reiterating the mocking semitone of the
‘Elegy’, extending its terrible influence. The tension was released
by the fleet hunting calls and cascading scales of ‘Hymn’, a
setting of Ben Jonson’s ‘Hymn to Diana’, goddess of the moon
and of the hunt. After a virtuousic cadenza at the close of this
movemenr, Watkins unobstrusively left the stage; Ainsley delivered a silky if
not soothing performance of Keats’ “O soft embalmer of the still
midnight”. Shades of unease were latent in the high Ds of the final line,
“And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul”, intimating the ultimate
‘rest’, and confirming that the disturbing dreams of the earlier
movements had not fully been banished.

The Nash Ensemble strings were superb throughout, and Brabbins tempi were
unfailingly well-judged. If I were to admit to one small misgiving it would be
that the Epilogue, delivered by Watkins from the gallery at the back of the
Hall, seemed to have too much presence, too much solidity. A more diffuse,
ethereal quality — one that might have been achieved if Watkins had
played off-stage, perhaps with door ajar, behind the platform — would
have sustained the enduring ghostliness that lingered in so many of the
movements. But, this complaint seems ungenerous when we were treated to such a
wonderful evening of music-making.

Claire Seymour

Sandrine Piau: soprano; John Mark Ainsley: tenor; Richard Watkins: horn;
Lawrence Power: viola; Martyn Brabbins: conductor; Nash Ensemble.

Lachrymae for solo viola and strings Op.48a; Les Illuminations Op.18;
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 4
December 2012.

image_description=Lachrymae by Frederic Lord Leighton
product_title=Britten’s Lachrymae at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Lachrymae by Frederic Lord Leighton