Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Encounters with Britten

Over at ArtsJournal, Terry Teachout has a posting up about his first encounter with Britten's music, which happened to have been the great Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. I am reasonably certain my own first Britten was the Variations on a Theme of Henry Purcell, better known as the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

But the second was very likely the broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera performances of Death in Venice, the composer's last opera, which also marked one of the few Met appearances of the tenor Peter Pears, Britten's partner in life and music, for whom so much of Britten's music was written. I did not hear Pears again for many years after that, but the sound of his voice, individual as it was, stayed with me all that time.

I'm lucky enough to have a couple of great recordings of the Serenade, including the very first, with Britten, Pears, and Dennis Brain, and I've heard it performed live twice, with a third encounter to follow in June. In between, I've seen several of Britten's operas - my favorites are Midsummer Night's Dream and Turn of the Screw - and heard live Les Illuminations, the Violin Concerto, the string quartets, and of course the War Requiem, in a first-rate performance by Semyon Bychkov with SFS. On record I've heard a good deal more.

As to the Serenade - no disrespect to the Prelude or "Pastoral," but it's "Dirge" that kills me every time.

Most of my readers undoubtedly know at least some Britten. If not, dig in; his music is both extremely beautiful and deeply moving.


Tom DePlonty said...

My introduction to Britten was singing the Ceremony of Carols in the Miami Boychoir in the 70s. Britten's death in 1976 coincided with a visit to Miami, and concert, by Carl Dolmetsch and pianist/harpsichordist Joseph Saxby. They'd known Britten (Dolmetsch convinced him to write for recorder) and spoke with the choir about him. A vivid childhood musical memory.

I love a lot of Britten's music. I'll give a shout out for one piece: the gorgeous and fascinating Lachrymae Op. 48 for viola and piano. The notion of variations-and-theme in reverse is nifty and it's surprising to me there aren't more of them. It's an idea I plan to keep ripping off until I get it right.

Lisa Hirsch said...

You know, I didn't care for Ceremony of Carols, which I sang in grad school, and I had completely blocked out the fact that I sang it. I have also sung the St. Nicholas Cantata, which I think is fantastic. I should give Ceremony another chance.

I will check out the Lachrymae. It's probably in the Big Box o' Britten I bought a few years back.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Listening to Ceremony now and trying to figure out why I didn't love it when I sang it all those years ago. Wonderful stuff - I'm listening to David Wilcox's recording.

Tom DePlonty said...

It's a lovely piece and weird in some of its musical and lyrical details. I've always found the heresy of the "Deo Gracias" kind of startling.

Just for you: in "In Freezing Winter Night" , the last two lines are taken by two soloists. I had the last line. If I remember right, one of your favorite tenors (not a tenor at the time, of course) sang the next-to-last.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think it works better with the trebles than it did with adult women.

Now I am trying to figure out which of my favorite tenors grew up in Miami!

Michael Strickland said...

Of course it works better with boy sopranos than it does with adult women because that's the way it was written, one of my Britten pet peeves in too many live performances lately.

Okay, I have every Britten recording he made with Peter Pears, etc., on London before it was all released as a set. But the great live performances in my listening career were in this order:

1. Peter Grimes at the SF Opera in the mid-1970s with Jon Vickers and Heather Harper, with Geraint Evans directing and singing Captain Balstrode. I saw all six performances from standing room and They Were Awesome. I'm still not quite over them.

2. Billy Budd at the SF Opera with Dale Duesing as Billy and James King as Captain Vere and I think a young James Morris as Claggert. Simple, perfect, wonderful production.

3. Noye's Fludde at some downtown San Francisco old church as part of the UN Inaugural 50th Anniversary celebration in the early 1990s with some huge troupe of children from Canada. The experience was unspeakably beautiful and holy.

4. I was a supernumerary stagehand for the last Pyramus and Thisbe scene of SF Opera's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the early 1990s. It was a perfect production by director John Copley with Brian Asawa and Sylvia McNair and TREBLE fairies instead of adult women. John Mauceri conducted and it was one of the great musical moments of my life.

5. Donald Runnicles conducting the SF Symphony in the mid-1990s in the "War Requiem." I'll never hear a better performance.

6. MTT playing a "Prince of the Pagodas" highlights suite in the early oughts, which he'll be repeating this June as part of the Britten festival. Why this ballet score is not as popular as anything by Tchaikowsky I have no clue.

7. Kevin Rivard and Brian Thorsett performing the "Serenade for Tenor, Horn, etc." with the New Century Chamber Orchestra.

The real happiness is that Britten is still being discovered and there are musical pieces of his that I still haven't heard live, like his grand opera "Gloriana" or any of the chamber opera "Church Parables." I will be leading the campaign for all of these to be entering the standard repertory. The music is just too good.

Henry Holland said...

It's 1988 and the only thing I knew about opera was from the typical "Great Opera Overtures" types of albums my Dad would play. The few encounters I'd had with the female operatic voice were not pleasant ones.

All I knew about Britten was that he was gay, but on the spur of the moment I went to a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Wiltern Theater. I was blown away and the next day went to Tower Records (RIP) and bought the only Britten opera then on CD, Peter Grimes. I played it constantly for weeks until I "got it". Away I went....

I love all of his operas except The Rape of Lucretia, I've seen at least one production of them all except Owen Wingrave. The Death in Venice at ENO in 2007 with Ian Bostridge, in an incredible Deborah Warner production, is one of the great nights I've ever had at the opera.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic did a War Requiem back in 1991 with Thomas Allen that blew me away (it was done during the first Gulf War), but I've not heard a live performance of a lot of his works, such as the Serenade for T,H & S.

I think he's a great opera composer, he wrote some terrific purely orchestral pieces and it's nice to see that he is performed regularly outside of England.

Lisa Petrie said...

You know the SF Symphony is doing the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings on June 19-21 as part of their Britten Birthday Bash.

I admit I am not as familiar with his music as I should be!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Bay Area folks posting here and reading are likely to know about those performances, yes. Aren't you working at SFS these days, Lisa?

Anonymous said...

My first Britten was definitely Leonard Bernstein's narrated recording of the Young Person's Guide. I found it fascinating, but the work that really sold me on Britten as a composer was the Four Sea Interludes.