Symphony No. 40.
Symphony No. 3 in a,
Benjamin Britten, cond;
Peter Pears (ten); English C O
ICA CLASSICS 5083 (DVD: 70:34) Live: Croydon, 12/20/1964;
How wonderful it is to watch Britten conduct—not because he does very much, but for the opposite reason, that he is able to draw such fine, emotional performances by doing very little. He is one of a handful of great conductors who moved so on the podium, a short list that also includes Doráti, Erich Kleiber, Toscanini, Böhm, Kempe, and Gielen. And it’s no accident that all of them are among my favorites to listen to as much as, if not more, than to watch.
Of course, in Britten’s case he was generally a part-time conductor. Although he enjoyed it, he seldom had the time to pursue it, busy as he was composing music. The liner notes say that Britten fell in love with the Mozart G-Minor Symphony after hearing Bruno Walter conduct it in 1934, and this makes sense. His own reading eschews the tragic drama that Toscanini found in the work, instead presenting it as dramatic in a general sense, but it’s a valid interpretation and it works. As the liner notes indicate, Britten in 1964 looked hale and hearty, fit and trim, his podium manner somewhat energetic and lively but always in control. He cues sections to come in at least two bars in advance, as he should (but not as all conductors do). Perhaps it was just his manner, but he often seems to be nodding in agreement with the splendid interpretation he is getting—technical blemishes aside. One of the horns cracks during an exposed passage in the
after which the player can be seen turning his instrument upside-down and emptying the spit valve, alas, four bars too late! In the last movement, one has the feeling that Britten is actually shaping the music with his hands.
Peter Pears is in excellent voice for the performance of Britten’s Nocturne although, to be honest, it is his one work from that period that I never liked. It always sounded formulaic, dry, even ugly to my ears, as if Britten were trying too hard to sound “modern” for the sake of those who wanted him to be so. Nevertheless, the performance is a good one.
The liner notes make a great deal out of the difference in Britten’s appearance between the two concerts: “His hair is grey, his face puffy, his demeanor that of an old man.” Perhaps—but as soon as he starts conducting, he is Britten again, the same simple, elegant movements on the podium, the same arm movements, the same approving nods of the head. At those moments where he is more in shadow, or photographed from behind, it looks exactly like the Britten of 1964, even down to that little pinch of thumb and forefinger on his left hand to indicate a sharper attack of the strings. And what a performance! I only wish he had conducted the complete symphony and not just two movements, because this is one of the finest performances of the “Scottish” symphony’s
I have yet heard. Older and more ill he might have been, but when it came to music-making he was still Ben Britten and that’s good enough for me. As a matter of fact, it was this performance that made me decide to keep this DVD. In a way, it reminded me of Toscanini’s television concerts, where one would see this frail old Italian making his way from the wings to the podium, with measured and deliberate steps, but then as soon as the baton arm was raised to give the downbeat, he “became” Toscanini again, and one could easily imagine his hair slightly dark around the edges rather than the snow-white it really was. Music-making invigorated both of them, even in physical decline.
Lynn René Bayley