Cath Barton attends the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for a celebration of Benjamin Britten on what would have been his 106th birthday.
Forty-three years after his death, Benjamin Britten’s music remains, in large part, fresh and interesting. A new production by David McVicar of Britten’s last work, Death in Venice (1973), has just opened at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to critical acclaim. In that opera Britten developed to the maximum the theme of transgression alongside beauty which he had first explored in The Turn of the Screw (1954).
As Michael Pollock said in his introduction to the song cycle Winter Words (1953) which formed the second half of his RWCMD lunchtime concert with tenor Adrian Thompson, those songs are a stepping stone to that opera. The poems by Thomas Hardy which he sets, from the collection of the same name, tell of a world of natural beauty, but within which there is a risk of innocence becoming corrupted.
Thompson negotiated the awkward turns of the first song in the cycle, At day-close in November, with easy fluidity. Similarly in the melismas of the narration of Midnight on the Great Western, in which an orphan boy rides a train alone, while on the piano Pollock provided the rocking motion and intermittent whistles of the train.
The aural pictures created in these miniatures are small masterpieces, illuminating the poetry. In Wagtail and Baby the piano conveys the bravery of the little bird. In The Little Old Table we hear the table creaking, while there is more birdsong in Proud Songsters. Thompson combined excellent diction with fine legato singing to tell the stories of The Choirmaster’s Burial and At the Railway Station, Upway. The final song of the cycle, Before Life and After, is more philosophical, voice and piano intertwining, with extreme chromaticism, to announce and bemoan the loss of innocence in the world, concluding with an anguished cry of ‘How long, how long?’
In the first half of the concert we heard Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), the first work he wrote for Peter Pears to sing. It is impossible to hear a tenor perform Britten without thinking of Pears and his unmistakable voice, but, equally, it is for other singers to interpret the work in their own way. Thompson has sung many of Britten’s operatic roles as well as his song cycles and gave this music rich tone, while Pollock provided the piano accompaniments which Britten wrote for himself with clarity and finesse. The emotional range of the Michelangelo sonnets is from anguish to anguish, but Thompson brought out tonal variety that, dare I say it, Pears might not have, and his pianissimo singing, particularly in the upper register of the voice, was beautifully controlled and particularly affecting.
Thompson and Pollock gave a moving rendition of Britten’s arrangement of The Salley Gardens as an encore. Thompson is a member of the Vocal Faculty at the RWCMD; there were clearly many of his students in the audience for this concert, who gave these two fine musicians a very warm response, deservedly.
This celebration of Britten’s music for voice and piano took place on his birthday, 22 November, which is also St Cecilia’s Day. She is the patron saint of musicians and it is fitting, though sad, that this was also the day on which choral music lost one of its great champions, Sir Stephen Cleobury, director of music at King’s College, Cambridge from 1982 until recently. The choir of King’s made a recording of Britten’s Saint Nicolas and others of his choral works in 2013 to celebrate the centenary of Britten’s birth, and Stephen Cleobury said about this:
“I am delighted to have been able to record Saint Nicholas in King’s. The cantata was written in the year I was born, and I have known and performed in it in various roles since I was a teenager. Britten’s links with King’s were strong; he frequently visited E M Forster in the College, and my two predecessors, David Willcocks and Philip Ledger, both worked closely with the composer.”
Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and in early 2021 Retreat West Books will publish her collection of short stories inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.
Adrian Thompson, tenor
Michael Pollock, piano
Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Header Image: Adrian Thompson (via RWCMD official site)