Commemorations of Britten’s centenary are taking many forms, and this one was not only different but surely one which would have especially appealed to the composer. Part of the Wigmore Hall’s Learning programme, it enabled us to experience Britten’s settings of Auden alongside some very apt readings, as well as hearing a new song cycle by a young composer clearly influenced by the master.
The programme was intriguingly built upon the themes of politics, travel and love – all paramount with both poet and composer in the nineteen-thirties. On This Island is Britten in miniature, especially in the Purcellian floridity in the first song and the evocation of the sea which whispers through so much of his work. Andrew Kennedy sang with conviction, if perhaps a little strain on some of the higher passages, and Alex Jennings contributed vivid readings, particularly of ‘Night Mail.’
Tim Watts’ Six Songs to Orpheus takes poems which would have had a special resonance for Britten and sets them in spare, melancholy style. The composer has referred to “…engineering a dialogue between the living artist and the dead,” and the setting of each poem seems to suggest a different feature of the creative artist, from Keats’ reflections on music and poetry, to Hardy’s characteristically dry lines connecting the past and the present. The work was composed for Andrew Kennedy, and it suits his forthright, nowadays quite forward sound. The piano part is an extremely demanding one, and it was played with skill and panache by Iain Burnside.
The songs comprising Fish in the Unruffled Lakes were interspersed with readings from Auden’s letters to Britten – sometimes touching, sometimes rather salty – and reminded us of Britten’s rare sensitivity to language, one perhaps only equalled by Hugo Wolf, the composer who most often comes to mind when hearing a piece such as ‘The sun shines down.’ These Auden settings were given highly dramatic performances, enthusiastically received by a much larger house than you might expect for a freezing Saturday afternoon.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.