Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Rob Chung on the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Sir Andrew Davis

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms

Last year Arcana went on a charm offensive, introducing friends to the BBC Proms, some for the first time. For the 2017 season we will continue to bring the festival to people in this way, discovering fascinating musical facts and insights as we go. For our first visit we chose the concert commemorating Sir Malcolm Sargent, one-time conductor of the Proms in the 1960s. The program replicated his 500th Prom, given in 1966 – and to offer an appraisal we invited Rob Chung (above)

Rob is DJ Chug, a drum ‘n’ bass DJ who runs his own Elements night in East London, and he has releases forthcoming this summer on Soul Deep and Co-Lab Recordings. Yet, as he revealed to Arcana, he has a classical past.

Beatrice Rana (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

arr. Sir Henry Wood The National Anthem; Berlioz Le carnaval romain Overture, Op.9 (1844); Schumann Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op.54 (1845); Elgar Cockaigne (In London Town) Op.40 (1900-01); Walton Façade – Suite No.1; Popular Song (1922-28); Holst The Perfect Fool – Ballet Music (1918-22); Delius On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912); Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Op.34 (1945)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Rob, what was your musical upbringing?

It was quite an extensive one – mainly from my sisters, when I was little. They would have anything from Duran Duran to Wham!, the big pop hits of the 1980s. My parents had a bit of Motown on vinyl, then as my sisters got older the influence came into early ‘80s R&B, swing, hip hop, De La Soul, Public Enemy, a lot of gangster rap – and then some jazz – Courtney Pine, Julian Joseph. And then it was on to drum ‘n’ bass, to Goldie and 4Hero, that kind of stuff. So that was the influence from my sisters, and then because there wasn’t any local radio in East Anglia – it was just Radio 1 or nothing, no pirate radio – I used to listen to a lot of dance DJs in the evening, such as Dave Pearce, Danny Rampling and Tim Westwood. I used to record Tim Westwood’s shows every Saturday, and fell in love with hip hop basically!

My sister came to university in London, and used to record all the drum ‘n’ bass in London, off the pirate radio stations, and she used to send me the tapes back. From there I learned what was going on in London. Then at about 15 or 16 there was a new pirate station in Norwich, of all places, called Flight FM, so I used to listen to that all the time. A lot of local DJs were playing garage and drum ‘n’ bass, and that’s when I discovered UK garage, and bought my first set of decks. I was buying anything and everything – house music, hip hop, drum ‘n’ bass, and it all went from there.

At the same time I played the piano and violin as a kid, at school. I played the violin from six years old to 18, and I was in an orchestra – I got to grade seven. I was in an orchestra at school, we used to play in the chapel and the cathedral, which you take for granted now. I have this recurring nightmare about playing on the second desk of the violins, losing my place and trying to pretend I was playing for the next hour or so. It still haunts me to this day, and I still bring it up with my school mate whenever I see him!

Have you had any other classical music experiences beyond orchestra?

Not really. I used to go to the odd concert with my parents, at Christmas carol time, otherwise not really. Not since school days.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Currently, Robert Glasper – a great jazz pianist, fusing hip hop, R&B and jazz, three forms I really like. He’s an amazing musician and great live. I’ve seen him about five times now, he blows me away every time.

Stevie Wonder I think is the greatest musician I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen him at Glastonbury, and at Hyde Park last year. He’s got an amazing repertoire, great albums and a great voice. He plays any instrument amazingly well, he just blows me away.

For the third one…a drum ‘n’ bass producer called Serum, who is absolutely smashing it on the drum ‘n’ bass scene at the moment. He covers all styles, has in your face, stupid jump up tunes. Anything he releases at the moment I would listen to it and probably buy it.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I would give it 10/10, it was awesome – amazing. Everything about it, the experience, the sound, the crowd, the quality of the orchestra, the conductor – it was a really good experience. I forgot what it was like to be at a concert but the stereo width of the sound blew me away, following the music. I was really impressed with it, and it was the Royal Albert Hall of course. The sound was crystal clear, not loud but you could hear every single thing. It was really impressive.

What was your favourite piece?

I haven’t actually decided on that yet…probably the Elgar piece…or the Schumann, with the piano. I’ll go for that one, I liked the call and response between her (Beatrice Rana) and the orchestra, with the clarinet and the cellos, going back and forth. I really enjoyed that and she was pretty special. It took you all over the place but she was the focal point as well.

You mentioned how you knew it was Elgar during the piece.

Yeah, I don’t know why – and the same with Britten as well. It feels like an English tune, I don’t know what it is. They always used to play Nimrod at the end of every year at our school, and I think it was the harmonics or the chord progression, as soon as they started playing – and how the strings come in and out, with a slow attack.

What was your least favourite?

I think it was The Perfect Fool. I got a bit lost, and couldn’t keep up with what was going on. That was the intention, right?! I couldn’t really follow it. I liked the Walton piece though, it was a bit of fun in the middle, and the fact you could get a crowd laughing at a random ending, that was pretty special. That was where the percussion came out and were really getting into their element.

What did you think of the Delius piece, On hearing the first cuckoo in spring?

I quite liked that, again – spring, the strings coming in, it was a nice, short, to the point piece.

Do you think in terms of the length of the pieces some was too long?

It’s hard to keep up for that length of time. Some of the Schumann I struggled with a bit at the end, but at the same time in the Walton when it was short and sweet I sometimes felt it was too short, a little poem rather than a chapter. It was a nice change, a bit like listening to a Disney score.

It can be quite mentally tiring trying to take all of the music in, you start wandering. But I was comparing tonight to when I saw James Blake play at Shepherd’s Bush, and it was a sensory overload with all the lights and everything, there was a lot to take in. it was like that tonight, with lots of different things going on and trying to keep up – it was a good workout for the brain.

I thought it was also interesting how someone in the orchestra can have just one small part in 30 minutes, but when you come in you can’t miss a place. The Elgar piece I felt a lot of tension building, the Walton piece – I forget you can have things in triple time. These days everything I listen to is in four!

What did you think of the concert as an experience?

It was a lot more informal than I was expecting. I enjoyed the laid back atmosphere, it seems very open – which is not what I expected at all. We had people reading their books, people lying down, a guy reading along to the music which I thought was quite cool. I liked the crowd involvement – not a lot but traditional, it was really nice. The National Anthem at the start threw me a bit (and me! – ed) but at the same time it is nice to do these things, it doesn’t happen very often.

The acoustics vary differently where you are, it’s interesting to compare down in the Arena with up in the gods. I would be interested in how they mic everything up and do the soundchecks. There is the depth of sound as well, you really feel the depth with the violins to the tuba. I liked how the organ just snuck in during the Elgar too. Nobody was out of sync, either! I was trying to spot someone…but not gonna happen!

What we said about the conductor, how much control he has over everything – I was impressed with that, how he sped it up, slowed it down and brought people in. I forget how much hard work that must be. You’ve got to know the pieces inside out, and it was very impressive.

Was there anything you would change about how the concert was staged or presented?

Not really. I guess I’m used to having members of the band introduced, pointing out a certain lead – but I guess that’s done in the programme notes. I don’t think I would change anything.

Would you go again?

Definitely, I would happily go.

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

BBC Proms 2017 – Malcolm Sargent tribute: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Beatrice Rana, BBC Symphony OrchestraSir Andrew Davis

arr. Sir Henry Wood The National Anthem

Berlioz Le carnaval romain Overture, Op.9 (1844)

Schumann Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op.54 (1845)

Elgar Cockaigne (In London Town) Op.40 (1900-01)

Walton Façade – Suite No.1; Popular Song (1922-28)

Holst The Perfect Fool – Ballet Music (1918-22)

Delius On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912)

Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Op.34 (1945)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 24 July 2017

Sir Malcolm Sargent holds a prominent place in Proms history, especially so for those Prom goers of an older vintage. It was therefore only right that in the 50th year since his passing there was a concert commemorating one of English classical music’s favourite sons. Sargent lived in a flat opposite the Royal Albert Hall, a blue plaque marking this clearly visible from Door 4 of the auditorium.

Calling Sargent a ‘favourite son’ is a statement that needs to be qualified, for not everybody held him in such high esteem. For orchestral players he could be anything but, being a hard taskmaster, but he was hugely popular with Proms audiences, boosting the profile of the festival and the Last Night in particular, to an art form fit for television. As tonight’s conductor Sir Andrew Davis recounted in a glowing tribute, he also knew how to get the best out of large choral and orchestral forces. Davis was a prommer in the 1960s, and held fond memories of Elgar, Shostakovich and Britten under the Sargent baton.

Davis himself is now 73, but still a sprightly figure who lovingly led his BBC Symphony Orchestra charges in a wide variety of English music, recreating the program given for Sargent’s 500th Prom in 1966. We ducked and dived through Berlioz, and his Le carnaval romain overture, before a glittering account of Schumann’s Piano Concerto from Beatrice Rana, herself in glittering green (above). Her quiet moments were especially profound, and she took charge of the more tempestuous passages of the outer movements with impressive control and expression. Balance is often a problem between piano and orchestra in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall acoustic, but here it was nicely achieved, and with phrases that were fleet of foot (and hand!) Rana showed why she is a highly coveted soloist.

Davis (below) came into his own for the second half. An English music expert whose interpretations are now virtually unrivalled, he brought forward the bustling streets of London for Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, balancing the organ with the orchestra impeccably as he did so. The big tunes were affectionately wrought and great fun, as they were in Walton’s mischievous music for Façade, an entertaining suite where the percussion section, led by the ever masterful David Hockings, came out on top form.

Holst’s ballet music for The Perfect Fool was treated to a delicately shaded performance, sonorous trombones underpinning a rewarding orchestral sound, with dances of great character. Meanwhile Delius gave us a sunkissed reverie, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, temporarily overriding the clouds outside.

Finally we moved to Britten, and a performance of the Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra that was as much fun to watch as it was to listen to. The composer’s clever navigation of each orchestral section is a great introduction for new listeners but also reminds the older ones of the colours and expressive techniques each instrument can produce. Davis handled the twists and turns to great effect, and this hugely entertaining evening reached its peak with all sections combined, Purcell’s original theme now refracted through Britten’s technicolour lens.

It was a great way to finish and a fitting tribute to Sargent, who conducted the work’s world premiere back in 1946. He would surely have been proud of Davis and his charges, who sent the crowd away smiling – something Sargent himself achieved on countless occasions.

Ben Hogwood (photos (c) Ben Hogwood (plaque) and Chris Christodoulou (performances)

Stay tuned for the first in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where drum ‘n’ bass DJ Rob Chung will give his verdict on the Malcolm Sargent Prom. Coming shortly!

Wigmore Mondays – Clara Mouriz & Joseph Middleton: Songs of the Antique

Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Purcell/Britten Alleluia (pre-1702, realised by Britten 1960)

Alessandro Scarlatti Son tutta duolo (c1699)

Anchieta arr. Dorumsgaard Con amores, la mia madre (unknown)

Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets (1842-6)

Duparc La vie antérieure (1884)

Hahn Tyndaris (1900)

Ravel Kaddisch (1914)

Falla 7 Spanish Popular Songs (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 June, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert that confirmed the versatility of Clara Mouriz and Joseph Middleton. Their performance, titled ‘Songs of the Antique’, concentrated on songs whose music or text looks a long way to the past for inspiration.

The mezzo-soprano has a rich and powerful voice in the middle register especially, which came to the fore in passionate accounts of the Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets, but also in the solo writing of Ravel and the quasi-orchestral scope of Duparc.

First we went right back to the Eighteenth century for an Alleluia – a song originally attributed to Purcell but found to be by John Weldon. Britten, as part of his Purcell revival, provided a complementary piano part, one that shadows the spun out vocal. This vocal won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Mouriz mastered it brilliantly here (from 1:49 on the broadcast link provided).

The Scarlatti, an excerpt from the opera La donna ancora è fedele, made a nice contrast (3:52). Unlike his brother, who wrote copious amounts of keyboard music, Alessandro wrote many operas – and the excerpt here shows how fluid his vocal writing could be. Meanwhile the arrangement of Anchieta’s folksong, thought to be from the fifteenth century, had a primal quality in this interpretation – with elegantly shaped piano from Middleton (7:01).

The Liszt was a highpoint of the recital, not just for Mouriz’s fire and passion but for Middleton’s word painting with the piano part. Liszt was borderline-obsessed with the sonnets, complementing his two vocal settings of the trio with powerfully descriptive pieces for the piano. The vocal line is highly charged in all three songs, and strongly Italian in musical flavour as well as language. Sonetto 104, Pace non trovo (I find no peace) surged forward turbulently in the piano part, a restlessness matched by Mouriz’s outpouring (from 10:31).

The Sonetto 47, Benedetto sia ‘I giorno (Blessed be the day) was notable for ‘the sighs and tears, the longing’ found by Mouriz at 20:07, while the final Sonetto 123 I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I beheld on earth angelic grace) was beautifully sung (from 23:10), Mouriz mastering the wide ranges and dynamics Liszt asks for. Middleton’s decorative piano part was brilliantly done too.

After this we had the relatively rare chance to appreciate the songwriting guile of Henri Duparc, a French composer whose life was tragically cut short due to neurasthenia. He left just thirteen published songs, of which La vie antérieure is an expansive example. It began optimistically (30:13) but turned rather sour towards the end, this performance carefully paced and given impressive detail by Middleton.

Hahn’s Tyndaris offered more optimism after the Duparc (from 34:35) while Ravel’s Kaddisch, from his Deux melodies hebraïques, had a powerful declamation that Mouriz used to take over the hall (36:15).

Finally the Spanish mezzo-soprano was completely on home turf for Falla’s brilliantly written songs, a whole wealth of different characters and emotions coming out in this performance (from 42:22).

We had the famous Seguidilla murciana (43:00) where ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’, the mournful Asturiana (45:10), a brisk Jota (47:58), a soft Nana (Lullaby) (51:03), a brighter Cancion (52:48) with darker lining and finally the dramatic Polo (53:42), where the piano’s repeated notes appear to describe the stabbing pain in the singer’s heart.

As a richly deserved encore the pair gave a soulful performance of a Spanish funeral song, Let my soul mourn (57:08).

Further listening

The works in today’s concert are on Spotify and can be heard below:

As a contrast, why not try an album of orchestral music by the Spanish composer Turina, featuring at its centre the collection of Poema en forma de canciones:

Meanwhile, you can watch Clara and guitarist Sean Shibe perform Asturiana, from the Falla songs, below:

Pierre-Laurent Aimard – Birdsong at Aldeburgh

pierre-laurent-aimard

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (photo Marco Borggreve)

This will be the eighth and final season of the Aldeburgh Festival to have Pierre-Laurent Aimard as its Artistic Director. To mark the occasion, the pianist has curated some unusual and intriguing concerts, and for the final year these revolve around his first instrument.

There will be a complete performance of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, but the event generating even more discussion is a performance of the complete Catalogue d’oiseaux, the collection of pieces for piano completed by Olivier Messiaen in 1958, the composer looking to directly replicate a rich variety of birdsong.

Aimard is presenting all of these, some 3 hours’ worth of music, in Snape and surrounding locations on Sunday, June 19. The day begins before first light, at 3:30am, with the audience given the opportunity to enjoy the dawn chorus, before Aimard begins his own performance just an hour later.

black-eared-wheatear

Le traquet stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear) – the first of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux to be performed in Aimard’s sequence.

During the day the music will move out and about, taking in RSPB Minsmere, before returning to the Britten Studio in Snape Maltings, where the final performance is at 11:00pm. Pierre-Laurent generously allowed Arcana time to talk about the day of birds, his experiences with Messiaen around the music itself, his thoughts on the festival and his plans for the future.

When did you first visit Aldeburgh, and what were your first impressions?

I first visited Aldeburgh a certain amount of time ago, long before I took over the direction of the festival. Like everybody I was impressed by the magic of the landscape, and also by the acoustic at Snape Maltings, not to mention the open-mindedness of the audience. These things don’t change!

What gave you the idea of performing the ‘Catalogue d’oiseaux’ in this way? Is it because Aldeburgh lends itself as a venue for music about nature?

I played my first bird pieces when I was twelve, so it’s a long story of music that has always been very close to me. I loved those pieces from the start, but I always wondered how can we present them to make sense? The sonorities in each of them are so different. Does it make sense to play them in recital? I’m not sure, and so I think we have found the most genuine, natural environment for this music.

Have you been rehearsing at the appointed concert times, such as 4:30am?!

I played the pieces recently in Tokyo, and they were day concerts – so I realised that when you play at midday there it is like 4:00am in the Europe. Now I think I’m trained!

How else have you prepared for this performance? Have you been walking in the reeds around Snape?

I have been walking of course, at all kinds of moments, both day and night. The impact of the place, and the nature of how the music sounds, is very strong. I do feel that we have picked all the right locations for this, and especially in the case of Minsmere, which is absolutely the right location. Messiaen loved and studied birdsong, so there is nothing better.

I am amazed by the number of places there are in the UK dedicated to the observation of birds, and the number of people who are devoted to them. Clearly this is a thing where mankind realises what can be lost, and I think this is an important thing to consider in the performance.

It is great there is this increase of interest in nature, and I think Messiaen, as a sort of prophet, felt this keenly. He was seen as foolish and crazy when he wrote the Catalogue d’oiseaux in the late 1950s, and he was a lost, isolated man as a result.

However I notice a big difference in the listeners between then and now. I performed the whole set in Dresden recently, with two short breaks, and there was a fabulous level of concentration from the audience. It shows how artists can challenge people.

There are many levels of richness in the music itself, exploring the relationship between man and nature, and showing the new language in the 1950s that Messiaen found, in sound vocabulary. He didn’t do it with new innovations such as serial composition, but with his birdsongs.

woodlark

L’Alouette lulu (Woodlark)– the last of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux to be heard in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s sequence.

What did you learn from studying with Messiaen himself, or his wife Yvonne Loriod, about the ‘Catalogue d’oiseaux’?

Studying with Messiaen was like hearing the original language, and you can sense it in their fingers. It was just like he imagined and wrote the music, and he is the source – so it was an incredible privilege to experience this music from him. He loved to explain everything and he spoke a lot about each piece. He would imitate the birds with onomatopoeia, describing their habits as well as the songs they sang. Even the silences in this music should be just right, and alive.

Do you plan to record the complete ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux’?

I would love to at some point. I have recorded small parts within my albums for Deutsche Grammophon on the music of Liszt, and Messiaen, but I would love to record it in full.

You have also programmed the complete Mikrokosmos to be played at the festival. Do you think this will especially appeal to those players who have encountered this music of Bartók as part of their learning?

The last Sunday will be my very last day as Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, so I wanted it to reflect the priorities we have shared. Discovery is a big part of that, so we finish with the sixth book of a huge project. The second priority is shared pedagogical progress, and discovering the shared accessible world of Bartók’s project. All kinds of pianists are taking part, so it is the principal of sharing with a community spirit. On the Saturday we will include new pieces alongside them.

These are the priorities – creation, pedagogy and community, the culmination of working with a marvellous team for 8 years.

aldeburgh

The view from Aldeburgh Music (c) Philip Vile

Do you see the Aldeburgh Festival as a unique institution?

Yes, both in its range and originality. I was the exception but I am an interpreter that loves creation. Jonathan Reekie, who chose me, saw an interpreter who was not from the UK, and saw that as a way to open up the festival. I try to be an interpreter, and not to stick to one religion. I have treated it rather like a composer, and I try to have a dialogue between ‘religions’ or ‘composers’.

Jonathan chose me because I could bring a presence from outside of England, and an eye on the UK artists that is not the same. That was the wish, to open up the game.

If you are in charge of a big legacy you are not serving it well by simply copying it. Clearly you have to try to bring in complements, differences, and sometimes controversy, to help it progress. I have looked to present the music of Britten in different contexts, and this year I chose Tippett, for the links of friendship, harmony, contradiction and consideration.

Do you think it is important to take classical music beyond those who already know it with the festival?

I think we have been very lucky with the team and community of programmers. This is not only a tradition but a necessity in the special way that artistry should be shared with many participants.

What are your plans for the future, post-Aldeburgh?

With my future plans I am sure of one thing. I loved doing this job, though mentally it took a lot of time and attention. I will be delighted to invest that back in to the piano, but I will have many activities other than that, which you will find out about!

Looking back on your time with the festival, what has been your most satisfying achievement?

It is not so important for me to think of personal achievements, but it is important that there were memorable moments for people watching. As far as I could analyse the comments, I think the festival has changed, but has stayed alive and continued to move forward. Fundamental elements have been retained and that was important, to respect the identity of an institution the best I could, but to have another level of reflection and excitement, to avoid a routine, provincial approach and sterility. I think we can say we have achieved that.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard will perform the complete Catalogue d’oiseaux at Aldeburgh Festival locations throughout Sunday 19 June. Tickets are sold out, but BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting the whole experience, beginning here and ending here

For more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard, visit his website

Wigmore Mondays – Britten and Auden from Robin Tritschler & Gary Matthewman

robin-tritschler

Robin Tritschler (tenor, above), Gary Matthewman (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 4 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b074zd45

Available until 4 May

Britten To lie flat on the back; Fish in the unruffled lakes; Berkeley Night covers up the rigid land (1939); Underneath the abject willow (1941); Berkeley Lay your sleeping head, my love (1937), Britten: When you’re feeling like expressing your affection (17 minutes)

Trad, arr. Britten The Jolly Miller (1946), The Ash Grove (1941), The Salley Gardens (1940), The Bonny Earl O’ Moray (1940); The Foggy, Foggy Dew (1942) (12 minutes)

Tippett 3 Songs for Ariel (1961) (5 minutes)

Britten On This Island, Op.11 (1937) (14 minutes)

Spotify

If you cannot access the concert, the below Spotify playlist contains all the songs. Robin Tritschler has yet to record these, but they are given here in versions from Philip Langridge:

About the music

Both the personality and the poetry of W.H. Auden were a revelation to the young Benjamin Britten when he was living in New York…and not just Britten either, for Lennox Berkeley also fell briefly under the poet’s spell.

His unique and highly descriptive way with the English language was a perfect foil for song composers such as Britten and Berkeley in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and here are some choice settings that use the piano as well as the verse to paint vivid pictures.

A selection of Britten’s folksong settings follow, with familiar tunes in songs such as The Ash Grove and The Foggy, Foggy Dew given new clothes from Britten.

The Shakespeare 400th celebrations are marked with the music of Sir Michael Tippett, all too infrequently performed these days. His 3 Songs for Ariel are brief but concentrated miniatures.

Finally Britten’s first published collection of songs, On This Island, is a quintet of Auden settings, not as closely linked as subsequent song cycles such as the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings or Winter Words, but showing his increasing prowess as a song composer.

Performance verdict

Robin Tritschler is a natural in the music of Britten, and clearly enjoyed the nuances of Auden’s poetry as he sang these songs. With Gary Matthewman an excellent, attentive accompanist he caught the tension of this period in Britten’s life, where the young composer was trying to find his feet but also feeling the pressure of being a member of Auden’s ‘circle’.

Tritschler sings with great clarity – the words are always easy to hear – and Matthewman matches his ear for detail with some virtuosic piano playing that somehow sounds effortless.

What should I listen out for?

W.H. Auden selection

1:59 – Britten To lie flat on the back

4:27 – Britten Fish in the unruffled lakes – an incredibly vivid picture of the water issues forth from the piano, followed with an oblique melody that is somehow memorable, fitting Auden’s poetry perfectly. The twinkling right hand of the piano finishes the song.

6:59 – Berkeley Night covers up the rigid land

9:38 – Britten Underneath the abject willow – a poem of Auden’s that again has very pictorial references that Britten delights in referring to in his piano part. A bracing main part leads to a softer, shadowy central section, before the bracing theme returns (10:44)

11:33 – Berkeley Lay your sleeping head, my love – a soft lulling to sleep from the piano chords that toll softly, before a caring and rather romantic vocal is revealed. From around 14:40 a powerful climax is reached.

17:10 – Britten When you’re feeling like expressing your affection – a humorous advert for using the telephone that is also quite affecting personally.

Trad, arr Britten

19:49 The Jolly Miller (from Hullah’s song-book) Britten’s ability to paint a picture through his piano accompaniments is put to especially vivid use here, the waters swirling rather ominously around the miller. The constant clash of notes gives the setting a rather darker air, as the idea of the ‘jolly miller’ is given a twist by the final line, ‘I care for nobody, no not I, if nobody cares for me’.

22:04 The Ash Grove (Trad) A deceptively simple beauty. The graceful melody gets the ideal response from Britten here, as he uses one of his favourite musical forms – the canon – to keep the melody on the piano running at a distance of half a bar behind the voice. The graceful but slightly watery piano part sets up a mood of reflection, until later in the song when voice and piano part company, at which point the piano heads into a completely different key. Britten’s genius is fully at work here, and The Ash Grove becomes less folk song, more English ‘Lied’. It is a strangely unsettling song.

24:30 The Salley Gardens (W.B. Yeats) A simple, yearning song that makes the most of its beautiful melody. There is a deep sense of longing in the harmonies Britten chooses to go with the tune here, and he achieves this as early as possible in the piano introduction, despite the words remaining largely positive until the revelation at the end that ‘now I am full of tears’.

27:08 The Bonny Earl O’Moray (Trad) Britten’s setting is a regal funeral march, an invitation for the singer to completely let rip against a piano accompaniment that has grand pretensions too. He moves between the major and minor key rather like Schubert used to do, keeping the listener guessing until the downcast end in the minor.

29:12 The foggy, foggy dew (Trad) Britten’s piano is appropriately cheeky, offering a nod and a wink to the listener outside of its Schubert influence, and it’s a memorable tune that sticks in the head for a while after listening.

Tippett (words by Shakespeare)

33:11 Come unto those yellow sands Tippett uses a florid vocal line here, a direct influence from Purcell. The words are clear, the piano accompaniment fast moving – and at the end the tenor evokes a dog barking

35:08 Full fathom five A solemn song with Tippett’s imagery of the ‘ding dong bell’ striking both in the vocal and piano lines.

36:46 Where the bee sucks Quite a jumpy setting this, with Tippett’s jaunty, staccato piano introduction finding a match in the tenor’s line.

Britten – On This Island (W.H. Auden)

39:38 Let the florid music praise! A grand opening to the collection, the tenor’s declamation matched by a busy, regal piano line. The mood turns, however, into a more carefully considered and slightly sorrowful song.

43:07 Now the leaves are falling fast The detached piano figures reflect the tension in this song. interpreted by Humphrey Carpenter as laced with sexual frustration. Carpenter’s commentary on this period of Britten’s life is thoroughly engaging, bringing through the tensions of grief versus the true beginning of the composer’s adulthood.

45:12 Seascape A more agile song, this, but a restless one too – perhaps because of its evocation of the rising and falling tide in the piano part.

47:28 Nocturne The finest song of the five, where Britten’s simplicity wins through – as does Auden’s poetry, talking of ‘night’s caressing grip’. This is a very moving song, the slow tolling of the piano enhancing its impact – and reminding us that it is a lament for Britten’s recently departed friend, Peter Burra.

51:38 As it is, plenty A typically ‘smart’ Auden poem that gets a similar response from Britten. The piano part is like pointed footsteps, until gradually the celebratory mood of the first song in the collection asserts itself towards the end.

Encore

54:27 Fishing by Arthur Oldham, Britten’s only pupil on his return to England from America. Even in the incredibly brief 40 seconds of this song, taken from the Five Chinese Lyrics, you get a sense of the influence!

Further listening

English song is a maligned but very enjoyable musical area – and arguably the best people to take us through it are the tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake. Here is their album The English Songbook: