Phrase; Aube; À une raison
In memoriam Dennis Brain.
Variations for piano.
Movements for a Clarinet Concerto
Thomas Zehetmair, cond;
Sandrine Piau (sop);
Rolf Hind (pn);
Michael Thompson (hn);
Richard Watkins (hn);
Peter Francomb (hn);
Chris Griffiths (hn);
Michael Collins (cl);
NMC 140 (78:12
Text and Translation)
Here’s an interesting disc, titled
and featuring one well-known work by Britten, his famed song cycle
with five lesser known or unknown works, but also adding three formerly unknown songs (orchestrated by Colin Matthews) to the familiar cycle previously mentioned. As in the case of Thomas Hampson’s “extended” version of Schumann’s
one must judge whether or not the three “missing” songs really fit, or whether Britten was right to reject them.
Part of my decision in this matter has much to do with the extended Schumann cycle. As good as some of the extra songs are, they break the mood and musical flow of the cycle when inserted. My view is that they would be better sung as encores or as a separate set of songs in an all-Schumann recital. But I discovered another drawback to my appreciation of these songs, and in fact the whole CD, in that I heartily disliked Thomas Zehetmair’s conducting. Here is someone with absolutely no feeling for this music; he conducts everything with a tense sense of rhythm, a very tight string sound bordering on over-tautness, and absolutely no feeling for legato. All of this is poison to the music of Britten, who above all loved writing vocal music to be sung and particularly championed a lyrical flow to everything he wrote. In Zehetmair’s hands,
which is about as far from Britten’s style as could be imagined. Fortunately, Piau’s singing is exemplary, which makes the listening experience at least halfway bearable, but Zehetmair’s taut, jagged sense of phrasing intrudes all too often on the singer’s mood. (For much better examples of how to conduct this music in a soprano version, listen to Ernest Ansermet with Suzanne Danco or Juha Kangas with Anu Komsi.) And it’s a shame, too, because Piau goes from strength to strength in her performance. One thing I found of immense interest was that her crisp, slightly glottal method of note separation in fast passages sounded very close to the way the late Teresa Stich-Randall sang them.
As for the formerly rejected songs, they are pretty good. The one titled “Phrase” is actually a setting of Rimbaud’s poem “Fête d’hiver.” “Aube” is the most substantial of the three, and the notes indicate that it is unclear whether Britten really intended “Á une raison” to be part of the cycle or not. Yet it is “Phrase” that really does fit into the cycle, working as a “connecting” song between “Royauté” and “Marine,” although it is quite obvious from its musical quality and the phraseology of the music (including similar roulades for the soprano, later tenor) that it matches the cycle almost exactly. But the liner notes are entirely correct: although the content of the words is similar, the
of “À une raison” is entirely different from
the latter rather matching in style and mood that in Britten’s next song cycle, the
Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo.
I didn’t feel that Zehetmair’s conducting style was any more conducive to the early student work,
but in this case perhaps his quirky, stiffly Germanic phrasing gives the music more backbone than it would otherwise possess. In fact, judging from this performance and nothing else, I found it an excellent piece of music, absolutely remarkable for a 16-year-old composer. The earlier section of the opening
sounds very much like the music of his mentor, Frank Bridge (which is certainly no insult), while the middle section clearly shows Britten’s own musical personality emerging. Moreover, the music develops well and is all of a piece, a superb piece of craftsmanship for so young a composer, and the piano writing is extremely mature, conceding nothing in terms of either popular taste or technique for the work of so young a pianist-composer. The
section moves slowly, almost stealthily, in the solo piano for quite some time, creating a strangely Gothic mood of a sort that Britten never indulged in later on. Even when the strings enter, there is no relief from the oppressive mood: in fact, the strings play in their middle and low ranges, often muted, holding long notes against the slow but steady tread of the piano, building slightly in volume and intensity but never breaking through to anything with sunlight in it. I found it to be entirely unique in the composer’s output.
The short (four-minute) tribute,
In Memoriam Dennis Brain,
was sketched out by Britten and intended to be played at the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival, but he never finished it. Matthews has done so for us here. It opens with a muted solo horn passage reminiscent of the
but then the orchestra enters as well as the other three horns, to play a rather dirge-like melody. But Britten was well aware of Dennis Brain’s lithe, playful personality, and in the concluding
he (or Matthews—I’m not sure which) has set a syncopated figure in the cellos against first one horn; after all four re-enter, a busy string figure takes up the development of the music as the horns play a syncopated, repeated figure against them. It’s an interesting little piece, and I’m glad it was rescued in this fashion.
On the other hand, the short (under three minutes) orchestral fragment is just that, a student sketch experimenting in orchestration, and the mid-1960s Variations for solo piano are not particularly creative or very interesting, but the Clarinet Concerto, as reconstructed and completed by Matthews, is an excellent work in Britten’s early style. More than 100 bars survive in Britten’s own hand of what was intended as a “Sonata for Orchestra,” but Matthews extracted “a clarinet line; and to create a rondo-like structure I only needed to contrive a few bars of transition into a recapitulation of the opening, and then a further brief transition before the beginning of the first movement is combined with the music that begins the Sonata to provide an appropriate coda.” It works, it sounds like Britten, and it is an unusually sunny, delightful piece.
In toto, then, a fascinating disc, highly recommended for Piau’s performances of
and the new additional songs, for the
and for the clarinet concerto.
Lynn René Bayley