Barbican Britten

However, Robert Tear, John Vickers, Philip Langridge and
others established themselves as worthy and independent heirs, forging
interpretations which were original, insightful and distinctive. Today we are
fortunate to have a stellar crop of tenors who bring unique and fresh insights
to Britten’s music, but it is a rare combination of cerebral insight and
visceral but controlled passion which characterises Ian Bostridge’s responses
and which makes his performances so captivating.

Written for the 1936 Norwich Festival, Britten’s orchestral song cycle
Our Hunting Fathers certainly demands of its soloist both intellectual
perspicacity and emotional immersion, two erudite, philosophical poems by W.H.
Auden — Britten’s perennial collaborator during the 1930s — framing three
energised Anglo-Saxon texts, the latter modernised by Auden. As Britten
anticipated, the first performance, by the LPO and soloist Sophie Wyss, was not
well-received: superficially the poetry examines man’s relationship with the
animal kingdom, but there exists a both a political dimension and a less
obvious sexual sub-text which the local audience were slow to perceive or
appreciate, Auden’s complex imagery and verbal dexterity proving overly

This performance by Ian Bostridge, accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia
conducted by Paul Daniel, brought clarity and focus to the superficially
obscure poetry, brilliantly conveying the musical structure which unites the
diversity of styles required to communicate the varied sentiments of the texts.

In the opening recitative of the ‘Prologue’, marked sempre ad
, Bostridge’s tone was restrained, perfectly emulating the
parsonical mood of the words; the dry orchestral accompaniment facilitated the
supremacy of the vocal line. Daniel encouraged the woodwind — who played
superbly throughout the evening — in their interjections which contrast with
the sustained string chords, casting light on significant lines of text: ‘the
poles between which our desire unceasingly is discharged.’ At the image of
the ‘extraordinary compulsion of the deluge and earthquake’, Bostridge’s
rising minor ninths were deeply poignant, the sustained ppp string
chord with trilling side drum and snares surging to an explosive fff.

‘Rats Away!’ is an anonymous medieval text which depicts animals as
vermin, the primarily wind-based orchestration and scurrying musical material
presenting an unsentimental, hard-edged world.

Bostridge’s virtuosic dexterity was evident in his florid melismatic
variant of the opening orchestral gestures; he projected the scalic figure,
‘Rats!’, with clarity and precision combined with cadenza-like energy —
aspiring with propulsive vigour towards the climactic, sustained high A —
while Daniel drew forth a shrill timbre from the tremolando strings
and flutter-tonguing woodwind. A contrasting mood was established in the
central section, the voice articulating a sort of invocatory prayer in
discourse with a legato solo viola (Clare Finnimore); here, Bostridge
shaped the passage with consummate control, incisively accenting the leaping
octaves which announce the names of the Evangelists and driving towards the
intervallic expansiveness of the climactic phrase, ‘That these names were
utter’d in’. The insistent repetitions of the three-note ‘Rats!’ motif
in the recapitulation were terrifyingly dynamic, and the tenor’s final
throw-away ‘Amen’, dropping from high decorative exclamations to a low D,
after a laden pause, sardonically emphasised the satirical nature of the
religious statements in the text — a cynicism which was further confirmed by
the motivic continuations of the unison strings, which Daniel guided into
ambiguous dissolution.

In ‘Messalina’ we move from public to private domains, as the singer
mourns the loss of his pet monkey. Bostridge’s drooping lament, ‘Ay, ay me,
alas, heigh ho!’, richly resonated with the hollowness of the divided
strings’ opening 5ths, the singer’s glissandi falling 7ths both
musically precise and ardently expressive. The narrative lines, ‘Thus doth
Messalina go/ Up and down the house a-cry’, possessed a folk-like naivety, as
the solo woodwind melodies intertwined with the voice. The elaborate,
melismatic cries of ‘Fie!’ were electrifying: Bostridge was not afraid to
push his voice to the limits through the tumbling major/minor thirds, the quiet
registral expanse of soaring molto espressivo e vibrato strings above
deep tuba and trombone expressed both the wide scope of emotions experienced
and the chasm of grief. The tenor’s stabbing crotchets, ‘Fie!’,
dissipated into despair and some beautiful solos from horn, bassoon and alto
saxophone, the latter lyrically played by Christian Forshaw, led us without
pause into Britten’s setting of Thomas Ravenscroft’s ‘Dance of Death’
— ‘Hawking for the Partridge’.

The tenor’s initial roll call of predators — ‘Beauty, Timble, Trover,
Damsel’ — was savage, the tight tarantella rhythm a parody of the
traditional hunting song. Bostridge whistled through his teeth, the repeated
rising 9th, ‘Whurrrrret!’, penetrating and discomforting;
indeed, the sense of a self-gratifying pleasure in violence is given an ominous
twist in the subsequent passage, where the isolation and repetition of the
words ‘Travel Jew’ portentously equates the ritual killing of animals with
the ‘Jew-hunting’ perpetrated by Nazi Germany — as ever, Bostridge was
alert to every nuance and inference of the text, and to the musical
opportunities for its expression. Daniel drew forth the multitude of
onomatopoeic motifs — the woodwinds’ staccato flurry of feathers,
the horn’s rasping glissandi of alarm — creating a mood of terror
and hysteria.

The conductor sustained the insistent rhythms of the ‘Dance of Death’ in
the concluding ‘Epilogue and Funeral March’; the ostinato
xylophone soullessly suggested man’s inability to break out of the endless
cycle of cruelty and despair. This movement possesses a disturbing tension and
ambiguity, and Bostridge and Daniel made much of the contrasts between
Auden’s two stanzas, exploiting Britten’s interjections and imitative

Auden’s first stanza describes the traditional self-assurance of man, who
pities the animals’ undirected innocence and whose own love, the driving
power which motivates the individual, is tempered by reason. However, in the
second stanza Auden proposes a ‘modern’ view of a love which leads to guilt
and self-regard, adapting lines from Lenin to ask us to imagine a man who has
modified his ‘southern gestures’ and makes it his ambition only ‘To
hunger, work illegally,/ And be anonymous?’

Bostridge’s extended melisma, contrasting powerfully with the composure of
the preceding syllabic lines, was finely crafted: initially restrained —
recalling the opening of the ‘Prologue’ — then flowering exquisitely into
an impassioned arioso. In the concluding funeral march, Daniel
fashioned a controlled disintegration, as the bass faded away leaving hard
col legno and pizzicato strings to offer the final
inconclusive, pessimistic utterances.

Elsewhere in the programme the prodigious talents of the Britten Sinfonia
— individually and collectively — were much on display. A pacy reading of
Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor allowed the
strings to demonstrate their responsive appreciation of the composer’s
rhythmic vitality and impulsiveness, as well as their feeling for colour and
dynamic range. Daniel’s flexible, free direction suggested that he is a
dancer manquÈ, so lithe and unconstrained were his gestures.

Young pianist, Lara Melda — the winner of the BBC Young Musician of the
Year competition in 2010 — was a dazzling soloist in Britten’s Young
(for piano, string quartet and string orchestra), sparkling through
the rising scales in scintillating fashion above gleaming, brilliant strings.
Her reading was full of the bright optimism of youth; fittingly, for the work
was first performed in Toronto in 1939 with the 25-year-old composer himself at
the keyboard.

Tippett’s Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli was
engagingly theatrical, the textures rich and the elaborate ornamentations
lavishly conveyed. Soloists Thomas Gould (violin), Miranda Dale (violin) and
Caroline Dearnley (cello) were superb, Gould in particular galvanising all the
instrumentalists to offer an uplifting, deeply committed performance.

Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes bears the sub-title ‘A
Time There Was’ — an allusion to Thomas Hardy’s Winter Words
and the inscription, ‘lovingly and reverently dedicate to the memory of Percy
Grainger’. At first glance, it might be felt that Britten and Grainger have
little in common, but a penetratingly creative engagement with English
folk-song links the two disparate personalities, and in this performance Daniel
demonstrated a discerning appreciation of the relationship between the simple,
straightforward folk-song melodies and the, at times, disruptive
accompaniments. The final movement, a setting of ‘Lord Melbourne’ which was
collected by Grainger, was imbued with a draining dejection, redolent of
Hardy’s verse.

Claire Seymour

‘Barbican Britten’ continues until 24th November — see
for further details.

Programme and performers:

Henry Purcell, arr. Benjamin Britten, Chacony in G Minor;
Benjamin Britten, Young Apollo Op.16; Michael Tippett,Fantasia
concertante on a theme of Corelli
; Benjamin Britten, Our Hunting
, Op.8; Benjamin Britten, Suite on English Folk Tunes
(A Time There Was). Ian Bostridge, tenor;
Lara Melda, piano; Paul Daniel, conductor; Britten Sinfonia. Barbican Centre,
London, Friday 8th November 2013.

image_description=Britten Sinfonia
product_title=Barbican Britten
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Britten Sinfonia