"Legacy: Benjamin Britten"
Music by Mozart, Britten and Mendelssohn. Peter Pears, English Chamber Orchestra. ICA Classics ICAD 5083, black and white,
70 mins., no subtitles
Through the bulk of Benjamin Britten's compositional career, the Decca record company made an untiring effort to document each new piece in a high-quality studio recording. In a complete reversal of today's conditions in the classical-music world, live performances were not considered to be of much use as the raw material for a recorded release. Thus this video compilation, which features Britten conducting his own Nocturne with Peter Pears as tenor soloist in a live televised performance from Croyden in 1964, is of great interest. Pears makes a tiny inadvertent swap of two words right at the start, and Britten lets the orchestra overpower the tenor at one point. These would be considered "flaws" by a studio producer. But this live performance is not just an important complement to the studio version made by Britten and Pears five years earlier; it is perhaps even preferable to it.
The Nocturne is a strange bird. Eight poems (or excerpts of poems) by eight different poets are set for voice and string orchestra, with a single obbligato solo instrument joining the strings for each poem until the full ensemble is heard for the first time in the finale, a complete setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet 43. In Croyden, the timpani-tinged march of Wordsworth's "The Prelude" is especially effective for the way it starts unexpectedly, for the brisker tempo and for the perhaps intentional swamping of the voice. The setting of Wilfred Owen's "The Kind Ghosts," with English horn, also gets a distinctive interpretation. In some performances, the voice and the instrument seem to exchange bodies at the end, with the tenor unusually low and the woodwind unusually high, but Britten here keeps the two soloists utterly indifferent and unaffected by each other. The Shakespeare sonnet gives the Nocturne a more Mahlerian climax in Croyden, one fuller and longer-sustained than in the studio, and the ending is eerier. Britten has set up the piece to end in the "wrong" key, but in the studio he telegraphs this a bit. In the live performance, he controls the ending in a straight-faced way, and it is quite strikingly over before we realize it.
Pears, fifty-four at the time of the live taping, shows a superb legato. This is one thing in the close intervals of "The moon was bright, the air was free," in Coleridge's "The Wanderings of Cain," but it is an achievement on an even higher level in the skips of Owen's line "She dreams of golden gardens." Throughout the performance, he leaves any sense of danger or insinuation or subtext to Britten's music, letting it simply speak through him.
The Nocturne works beautifully this way, but the level of performance on all recordings of the work is extremely high. If I could have only one version from Pears, Bostridge, Langridge or Padmore, and none of the others, I wouldn't exactly feel cheated. (Unlike the case of Rhapsody in Blue or the role of Tosca, people with absolutely no affinity for the piece don't decide to just take it up anyway.) But Pears's ability to implant the sound of a single line in the listener's memory for years has most clearly passed to Padmore.
Britten's innate musicality as a conductor is also on view in his performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 40. He is perfectly aware of performance practice in the case of notes marked neither legato nor staccato and in the matter of string-to-woodwind balance. On the other hand, musicologists would dispute his interpretation of grace notes. The slow movement gets a loving, graceful performance; it almost replaces the third movement as the minuet of the symphony. We are also offered excerpts, taken from a different live telecast concert in 1970, of Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony, in which Britten maintains a composer's insistence on indications such as vivace and non troppo.
A full chorus, a harp and a harpsichord are onstage, unused, during the Mendelssohn. They were needed for excerpts from Britten's Gloriana, performed on the same concert but not included on this DVD. Gloriana is primed for a comeback during this year's Britten centennial; is there any way this material can be released?
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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