The Last Letter: the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court

Devised by Dr Kate Kennedy – who is the Weinrebe Research Fellow in
Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford – and performed in Milton Court
Concert Hall by the Britten Sinfonia, baritone Jonathan McGovern and
narrators Sophie Hunter and Richard Pryal – the programme represented, in
Kennedy’s words, a ‘re-thinking and re-imagining’ of the First World War: a
‘nuanced’ picture allowing us to hear a ‘multiplicity of voices’ and which
‘put the composers of the war side by side with the writers, both male and

It was certainly a diverse programme, with two musical works – the five
songs which form Nico Muhly’s The Last Letter (2015), here
performed for the first time in an arrangement for chamber orchestra, and
five songs from Ivor Gurney’s settings of Housman, The Western Playland (1919, pub. 1926) – forming the backbone
around which assorted poems, letters, prose fragments and other musical
items were arrayed.

While the performances, musical and spoken, were unwaveringly committed and
engaging, the sequence seemed to me overly complicated and fragmented – not
least because of the confusing and unhelpful layout of the printed
programme, in which a list of the musical items was followed by a
description of the poetry and prose readings (though the texts themselves
were not supplied), with the texts of the songs by Muhly and Gurney buried
later in the programme amid explanatory notes relating to the other musical
compositions to be performed. How was one to negotiate through the
sequence, especially as the Concert Hall was repeatedly plunged into
darkness, allowing for some atmospheric and theatrical spotlighting of the
readers but making it nigh on impossible to read the printed texts
supplied? Moreover, the cycles by Muhly and Gurney lost some of their
impact because of the dispersal of their movements amid other items which
tugged one’s focus in different directions, hindering the development of a
‘narrative’ and weakening the accumulation of expressive intensity through
each cycle’s sequence of songs.

That said, I was impressed by the way the evening’s two narrators, Richard
Pryal and Sophie Hunter, brought the varied voices, relationships and
experiences of the historical past, recorded on the written page, into the
living present. Amplification was employed – by necessity, I suppose,
though one imagines that any self-respecting schoolmaster of the day would
have had little trouble projecting with clarion resonance to the corners of
the Concert Hall – and at times I would have liked the spoken voices to
have had a little less immediacy, as in Rupert Brooke’s ‘Fragment’ or
Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’, where I would have welcomed more gradation of
tone and volume. But, Pryal and Hunter drew us into the pain and pathos
recorded in the memoirs of Helen Thomas – whose poet-soldier husband,
Edward, was killed at Arras in April 1917 – and in the letters of Vera
Brittain and her fiancÈ, Roland Leighton.

Frederick Kelly’s letter to Edward Marsh, informing him of the death of his
dear friend, Rupert Brooke, was beautifully recited by Pryal, accompanied
by an intense rendition of Kelly’s Elegy: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke (1915), arranged for small string
ensemble, in which Thomas Gould’s violin solo floated tenderly like an
ascending spirit (Kelly was himself killed at the Somme just a few months
thereafter). One of the most striking readings was ‘The Relief’, part of
‘Out of the Trenches’ from Broken Carousel by the German, Jewish
poet, Leo Sternberg (translated from the German by Peter Appelbaum), with
its terrible images of the soldiers ‘snowed in the trenches like
snow-covered clods of earth … Our death cry only a signal for the army/
Behind us’.

In the light of the Armistice commemorations and with Brexit on the
horizon, the fact that Muhly’s The Last Letter was commissioned by
the Barbican Centre and the European Concert Hall Organisation, with the
support of the Culture Programme of the European Union, seemed almost
painfully ironic. Muhly’s settings of four letters drawn from Mandy
Kirkby’s edition, Love letters of the Great War, and Schiller’s
poem ‘The Gods of Greece’ (translated by Richard Wigmore) was first
performed in this same Concert Hall in October 2015 by baritone Benjamin
Appl and pianist Gary Matthewman. Here, members of the Britten Sinfonia
played the composer’s new chamber orchestration, accompanying Jonathan
McGovern, who gave an earnest and compelling performance.

The sparse textures etched by piano and harp at the start of the first
song, threw the vocal yearning into sharp relief, as the husband repeatedly
asks his wife, “Please, tell me your name, as I have forgotten it”.
McGovern then conjured the urgency of the wife’s reply, surging in short
fragments, “Jack – my own – my only love – how I look for our next letter –
how much longer shall I have to wait?”, before retreating to a pianissimo
of almost visceral intensity, “Oh! Let me feel you crushing,my very life
into yours”. The large leap between the first two words of her written
request to be permitted a conjugal visit, “Dear Leader of the Company!”,
conveyed every atom of the strength she had to summon, before her passion –
anger, desire, frustration – seemed to over-spill. McGovern’s focused line
in the subsequent slow, simple declamation that she was to divorce her
husband and marry another man, masked tragic emotional disturbance, as
intimated by the violin’s commentary; the abruptness of the close was
brutal. In the final song, in which Schiller describes a deserted
landscape, the baritone’s dark tone and robustness through the angular
line, “Fair world, where are you?”, was compelling.

The strength of line that McGovern displayed to such good effect in Muhly’s
songs was occasionally less effective in Gurney’s Housman settings. In
‘Reveille’, I’d have liked more nuanced phrasing, to complement Gould’s
expressive contribution, and while the forthrightness of the poet-speaker’s
almost defiant honesty in ‘Loveliest of Trees’ – “Now, of my threescore
years and ten,/ Twenty will not come again,/ And take from seventy springs
a score,/ It only leaves me fifty more.” – I missed the soft wistfulness of
the closing vision of the cherry tree, “hung with snow”. Pianist Mark Knoop
engaged expressively with the vocal line and accompanying string quartet in
‘Is My Team Ploughing?’ and McGovern worked hard to differentiate the
text’s speakers.

The members of the Britten Sinfonia made their own instrumental
contribution to the memorialising medley. I was not familiar with Music for Seven Stringed Instruments (1907-11) by Rudi Stephan,
who was killed in action near Tarnopol in Galicia on 29th
September 1915, aged twenty-seven, but the Sinfonia’s beautiful performance
of ‘Nachspiel’, which ended the first part of the recital, made me want to
hear more. The melodies were supple, the tone warm, the harmonies subtly
ambiguous, and the players crafted the structure finely, building towards a
luminescent close in which the violins soared with silvery translucence
above gentle but pointed harp gestures. Two movements, ‘Prelude’ and
‘Forlane’, from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin (1917), arranged by
Robert Weiner for oboe and string quartet, were interspersed between vocal
items in the second half of the concert, which concluded, perhaps
inevitably, with Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936). The Britten
Sinfonia gave a poised and self-possessed performance, employing a
restrained vibrato which served paradoxically to increase the focused
intensity. Here, at last, after the multiplicity of voices and
perspectives, was the singularity and stillness that offered time and space
for reflection and remembrance.

Claire Seymour

The Last Letter
: Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Gould (violin/director), Jonathan McGovern
(baritone), Sophie Hunter (narrator), Richard Pryal (narrator).

Nico Muhly, ‘Letter One’ from The Last Letter (world premiere of
chamber orchestral version); Ivor Gurney, ‘Reveille’ fromThe Western Playland; Frederick S. Kelly (arr. Divall),Elegy: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke; Muhly, ‘Letter Two’ fromThe Last Letter; Gurney, ‘Loveliest of Trees’ fromThe Western Playland; Rudi Stephan, ‘Nachspiel’ fromMusic for Seven Stringed Instruments; Gurney, ‘The Aspens’ fromThe Western Playland; Muhly, ‘Letter Three’ fromThe Last Letter; Ravel (arr. Weiner), ‘Prelude’ fromLe tombeau de Couperin; Muhly, ‘Letter Four’ fromThe Last Letter; Gurney, ‘Is my team ploughing?’ fromThe Western Playland; Ravel (arr. Weiner), ‘Forlane’ fromLe tombeau de Couperin; Muhly, ‘Letter Five’ fromThe Last Letter; Gurney, ‘March’ from The Western Playland; Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London; Friday 9th November 2018.

product_title=The Last Letter: Britten Sinfonia, Milton Court Concert Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Jonathan McGovern

Photo credit: Gerard Collett