Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Britten Birthday Centenary @ Wigmore Hall, London

1 December 2012


Benjamin Britten

This recital was a model of planning – two great artists of the present, framed by two young singers whose careers are just beginning. The evening centred around a work first performed at the Wigmore by Britten and Pears in 1945, and ended with one of the composer’s most profound and characteristic masterpieces.

Marcus Farnsworth won the 2009 Wigmore Hall Song Competition, and at that time I referred to his “lovely, very light, sweet baritone voice” which makes him ideal for a work such as ‘Tit for Tat,’ Britten’s setting of poems by Walter de la Mare – the composer did not think much of the piece (but then, he was also less than impressed with his ‘Serenade’) but it does capture the freshness and innocence of the child. Marcus Farnsworth sang it eloquently, and Malcolm Martineau provided elegant support.

Much more than elegance was needed in the following work, the ‘Holy Sonnets of John Donne’ written for Peter Pears and here interpreted by the singer whose timbre, artistry and commitment most exactly resemble those of Pears: if John Mark Ainsley ever gives another performance to equal this one, I hope I’m around to see it. This is one of the most demanding works in the vocal repertoire, not just for singers but for pianists and indeed audiences. We were pretty wrung out at the end, but as always Martineau rose to the most fiendish challenges, such as the fanfares in ‘At the round Earth’s imagined corners’ with near-insouciant skill.

It helps to be an exponent in Purcell and Handel singing when it comes to this work, and Ainsley brought to the performance all he has learned from that style: technical expertise allied to intense expressiveness, appreciation of the significance of words, and the most dramatic interpretation were all on show here. Britten asks for much, and Ainsley did him proud – from the depths of sorrow in ‘Since she whom I loved’ to the biting resonance of ‘Thou hast made me,’ this was masterly singing of a complex and taxing piece.

Peter Pears said of ‘A Charm of Lullabies’ that it was “…simple, lyrical music, a world away from the Donne…” and although Ann Murray brought out that simplicity, her opulent tones also evoked the more sinister import of some of these ‘lullabies’ which are not always the kind of thing you’d like to send you to sleep. Her singing of the final one, ‘The nurse’s song from The Play of Patient Grissell was a master class in the art of sustaining a legato line whilst providing the most telling interpretation.

Robin Tritschler is establishing himself strongly on the operatic stage, and that is where he seems to me to be most comfortable; his ‘Winter Words,’ whilst always musical and affectionate towards both poetry and music, left the impression that he’d much rather be singing Belmonte or Tamino. Hardy’s poems demand a subtlety which is rare in performance, and this young tenor is not quite there yet in that aspect. He gave a most characterful portrayal of the speakers in ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ and conveyed the melancholy of the scene with skill; ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’ was perhaps a little too ‘interpreted.’ Malcolm Martineau evoked Britten’s musical landscapes with poetic grace.

The final song of ‘Winter Words,’ the oblique and troubling ‘Before Life and After’ gives the title to this series of concerts celebrating Britten’s centenary, and there are three more to be savoured: on Monday 3rd, Malcolm Martineau will be joined by Christine Rice and Mark Padmore for a varied programme including some of Britten’s ‘Folksong Arrangements’ at 13.00, and at 19.30 the Takács Quartet will perform the String Quartets, op. 25, 36 and 94. On Tuesday 4th the Nash Ensemble with Sandrine Piau and John Mark Ainsley will round off in fine style with an evening which will conclude with the immortal ‘Serenade for tenor, horn and strings’ which received its premiere at the Wigmore Hall in 1943.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org


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