Saint Nicholas’ Day and Britten’s dramatic response

Today is a celebration of the feast of St Nicholas, the early Christian bishop who died on this day all the way back in the year 343. Nicholas is the model for the modern Santa Claus / Father Christmas, but he is also the inspiration behind a major piece of classical music, completed by Benjamin Britten in 1948.

Arcana’s sister site, Good Morning Britten, has this to say about the cantata:

St Nicolas is scored for tenor solo, chorus, semi-chorus, four boy singers and string orchestra, piano duet, percussion and organ. It was written to text by Eric Crozier, for performance at the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, on 24 July 1948.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s honouring of the Christmas saint was timed for the centenary of Peter Pears’ old school, Lancing College in Sussex. Yet Saint Nicolas did not receive his first performance there – in fact it opened the very first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948. Critics were requested not to write about the piece until its primary function at the school had been performed. The highly acclaimed libretto is from Eric Crozier, with whom Britten wrote Albert Herring.

Donald Mitchell, in his biography of the composer, observes that ‘for a year his music continued in the blithe spirit that Albert Herring had engendered’. He also notes how the work combines professional and amateur, Britten seeking not to exclude anybody on the grounds of musical talent. ‘There are testing but rewarding parts for the amateur singers and instrumentalists; congregational hymns, and one of the catchiest of his tunes for The Birth of Nicolas.’

This gives the strong sense Britten was writing for all ages and beliefs, and is reinforced by Stephen Arthur Allen. Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, he declares it as ‘not purely a work for religious digest’. Furthermore, ‘A duality of narrative may be perceived through the dilemma between Nicolas’s public and private world:

“Our eyes are blinded by the holiness you bear,

The bishop’s robe, the mitre and the cross of gold.

Obscure the simple man within the Saint.

Strip off your glory, Nicolas, Nicolas, and speak! Speak!”

He warms to his theme. ‘The transparent nescience of The Birth of Nicolas is reinforced by its A major setting. The presence of the tritone, governing the stepwise movement of the sequence in each phrase, demonstrates that Britten is able to write music that children can engage with and sing easily, while embodying sophisticated intervals and a symbolic dimension that offsets generic expectations otherwise associated with such material.’

After that, perhaps the words of Michael Kennedy are key: ‘There is little need to examine this cantata in detail; it is best experienced whole and without analytical preparation.’

Thoughts

The advice from Michael Kennedy to refrain from analysing Saint Nicolas too much is sound indeed, for this is a dramatic piece that works best taken on face value.

Once again it is possible to witness Britten’s ability to write dramatic sacred music, and as in The Company of Heaven he bolsters that with sympathetically set hymn tunes. There is a strong sense of progression through the life of Saint Nicolas, too, and at his birth he gets a really catchy tune, written for the boys’ choir in a joyous A major. As he journeys to Palestine Britten colours his relatively small orchestral forces with a glassy, oscillating line for the two pianos and wispy held strings.

Meanwhile the tenor soloist – Pears, of course – gets frequent opportunities to exploit his talent for legato singing, with some extremely lyrical writing that would seem to me to have a strong Italianate flavour, that of Verdi perhaps.

The hymn quotations invite the involvement of a congregation, another element in common with The Company of Heaven. However Britten cannot resist the odd piece of harmonic mischief, and All People That on Earth do dwell, so beloved of Vaughan Williams, gets some unexpected minor chords. I couldn’t help but think that was a deliberate thumbing of the nose!

There is, however, a certain amount of homage being paid here, deliberate or otherwise. I was sure in places I could detect hints of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – especially in the way the two works end, alike in key in harmony, while there are passing elements of Handel and Bach, via Mendelssohn.

Once again Britten uses the performing spaces to his advantage, positioning the children’s choir a distance away from the main action. This is especially effective after the swell of the choir towards the end of His piety and marvellous works, which cuts to the trebles singing ‘Alleluia’ in the distance. It is a magical moment.

Equally fine are the climactic closing pages, the death of the saint marked by the singing of the Nunc Dimittis chant, Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in piece, which seals the deal on a very fine and enjoyable work.

Watch and listen

Below you can hear the late Sir Stephen Cleobury talking about the work, and how he went about the 2013 album he made with King’s College Cambridge Choir to mark Britten’s centenary:

On the Spotify link below you can listen to the album Cleobury conducted, which also includes the unaccompanied choral masterpiece Hymn to Saint Cecilia and the celebratory anthem Rejoice in the Lamb, again under the direction of Cleobury.

Wigmore Mondays – Pavel Kolesnikov & Samson Tsoy, Colin Currie & Sam Walton: Music for pianos and percussion

Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy (pianos), Colin Currie and Sam Walton (percussion) (pictured above in rehearsal, credit unknown)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 2 December 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A truly memorable concert with many more instruments than performers! The Wigmore Hall stage was straining at the seams for this concert, with a daunting battery of percussion positioned behind two lidless Steinway pianos.

As BBC Radio 3 presenter Fiona Talkington confirmed, the two pianists and their percussion counterparts had only met the previous week. This is where music making can be so thrilling, for chemistry had been established and all four performers clearly enjoyed the concert experience.

That much was clear from the first, atmospheric notes of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, given in an arrangement that seems to have been the composer’s own, retaining percussion parts from the orchestral original. The Prélude à la nuit (1:49 on the broadcast link below) immediately evokes the heady Mediterranean scene, laced with a background tension that was occasionally released in faster music, thrumming like an ensemble of guitars. Ravel’s orchestral concepts are easily discerned here, with the players very closely attuned. The Malagueña (6:02) is suitably enchanting, while the Habanera (8:05), with lovely detail on castanets and xylophone, wears its Carmen influences on its sleeve. Finally the dazzling Feria (10:52), brilliantly performed, wraps up our colourful Spanish sojourn with a flourish.

The percussionists then had a break while Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy gave us a rarity in the form of Britten’s Two Lullabies. Written for a concert with South African pianist Adolph Hallis, they are barely known – but carry a number of the 22-year old composer’s musical trademarks. The first lullaby is as you would expect, gently rocking like a boat as the listener’s head nods towards sleep (19:07) but the second, Lullaby for a retired colonel (23:20), is an ‘anti-lullaby’, seemingly written to annoy its subject into wakefulness with renditions of The British Grenadiers, Men of Harlech, the Marseillaise and the Last Post. This performance caught the gracefulness and cheek respectively.

The main act, if you like, was an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary piece. Even now, 82 years on from its Swiss premiere, there are few pieces as original as Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, one of the standout pieces of 20th century repertoire but one of the least performed in that class, due to its unusual scoring.

This performance gave us the chance to appreciate Bartók’s unique sound world, from unhinged Allegros to daringly slow night music where nobody dare move a sinew. It begins in the depths (28:10) with the ominous rumbling of timpani and cold piano octaves. This is the small cell from which the piece grows, angular lines on the piano complemented by strident timpani. As always in Bartók the music is incredibly atmospheric, and when it breaks out into the faster music (from 31:30) an almost primal energy is released. Terrific playing from all four, who had only started playing this music together the previous week – with a stunning ending in pure C major.

The second music (42:13) is a classic example of Bartók’s night music. The brushes on the snare drum bring the cooler evening air into sharp focus, with an even colder unison on piano in response. This performance brings out these incredibly descriptive aspects of the writing, each detail carefully observed and pointed until – as in many slow movements from the Hungarian composer – the ground suddenly falls away and the music tears off at a pace. Soon enough a peace of sorts is restored, though again there is an eye left open just in case.

The third and final movement is the sound of unbridled joy, heralded by a rapid shift to C major and a terrific burst of energy. The xylophone (Sam Walton in this performance) has terrific clarity in its theme, which has sardonic overtones Shostakovich would have enjoyed, while the interplay between the pianos is superbly balanced. The percussion includes a driving part for both bass drum and timpani, where Bartók uses glissando to create an evocative twang, often in quieter passages. These were superbly judged by Colin Currie. The piece ends in unexpected quiet, the purity of C major ensuring it has the ideal place to rest after considerable exertions.

A truly great performance, this, one borne of musical instinct and chemistry that found all four performers going hell for leather in the quick music but exercising the utmost restraint to bring Bartók’s vivid colours through when all was quiet. Make sure you listen to it!

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Ravel Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8) (1:49)
Britten Two Lullabies (1936) (19:07)
Bartók Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937)

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard in leading available versions on Spotify below:

Colin Currie and Sam Walton have recorded the Bartók previously, with pianists Cédric Tiberghien and François-Frédéric Guy. Details on that recording can be found together with soundbites at the Hyperion website:

Bartók wrote three pieces for Paul Sacher while in Switzerland – the Sonata as heard here, the remarkable Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta and the more rustic, folksy Divertimento for string orchestra. Both those pieces can be heard below as part of an album from Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, which also includes the ballet suite from The Wooden Prince:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 18: Edward Gardner conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Mahler and Britten

Prom 18: Stuart Skelton (tenor, above), Claudia Mahnke (mezzo-soprano), Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above)

Britten Piano Concerto Op.13 (1938)
Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 1 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) received its Proms premiere in the year 1914, long before the huge upturn his music experienced in the 1960s. It is an example of Sir Henry Wood’s instinct for new music that it reached the Proms so soon, though the programme labelling of the piece as a ‘Henry Wood novelty’ does the work a massive disservice. A certain Benjamin Britten was on to it too, describing in 1937 the impact of its final set of poems, Der Abschied, and how it ‘passes over me like a tidal wave’.

Mahler was one of Britten’s foremost influences, specifically the Fourth Symphony, which you can hear at the Proms later in the season on Sunday 11 August. There is not much Britten this year, but what there was in this concert was brilliantly performed. The Piano Concerto has a youthful spring in its step, treating the instrument equally as a creator of percussion and melody, following in the traditions of Prokofiev and Shostakovich as it does so.

This performance showed it off in full. Leif Ove Andsnes (above), who has lived with the work for 25 years and performed it on his Proms debut in 1992, had its measure. Technically he was superb, leading from the front with an account of targeted bravura, never showing off for the sake of it and always keeping a melodic shape to even the most percussive of chord sequences. Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra offered solid support, if very occasionally falling behind the piano rhythmically – though that could also have been the Royal Albert Hall acoustic playing tricks. The strings were beautifully shaded in the quieter moments of the Impromptu, whose emotional depths hinted at a darker presence behind the technical feats – perhaps the presence of the Second World War, only a few years away.

Andsnes delivered an unexpected encore in the first movement of Mompou’s Suburbis, stylistically close to Ravel and Falla but still evoking its own individual nocturnal scene.

The Mahler followed the interval, lasting just over an hour – but given the quality of the performance the time passed in a flash. To date Edward Gardner’s encounters with Mahler have been relatively minimal, but the natural gravitas he gave to the orchestral writing in Das Lied von der Erde, not to mention the room made for the chamber-like instrumental solos, showed his instincts are ideally suited to the composer. The BBC Symphony Orchestra wind – fully deserving of their curtain call at the end – were on top form, as were the strings, their quiet thoughts during the final song in particular staying rooted in the memory.

Fine as the orchestral playing was, the two singers rightly shared the limelight. Stuart Skelton’s tenor was a thing of wonder, called into high register action at a daringly early stage in proceedings but delivering wholeheartedly from the off. His characterisation of the two drinking songs was spot on, the gestures and body language wholly at one with the words, giving him the creative licence to exaggerate a note or two. Here he had support from BBC Symphony Orchestra leader Igor Yuzefovich, and a suitably inebriated violin solo during Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring). Meanwhile in Von der Jugend (Of Youth) some nimble negotiation by Skelton of Mahler’s score gave the song an invigorating freshness. That he was able to project these natural and very human elements of phrasing without ever sounding contrived spoke volumes for the degree to which he has clearly inhabited this piece, as evidenced in his contribution to the Proms Twitter feed a few hours before.


Mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke (above) was equally assured in her delivery, the voice and its phrasing again completely comfortable with Mahler’s demands in Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely Soul in Autumn) and Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) before, in the celebrated Der Abschied (The Farewell), time stood still and the music became a thing of wonder. These otherworldly contemplations felt as though they extended from the Arena floor of the Royal Albert Hall right up to the stars, far beyond the dome, and Mahnke’s rapt expression spoke of how she too was experiencing the same transporting effect. Gardner’s operatic instincts stood him in good stead, particularly in the recitative-like sections, where orchestral players held notes like baroque continuo staples, but the overall effect was in aid of the contemplation of life itself.

The rude interjection of a mobile phone did nothing to break the spell, for these two singers, and the 80 or so instrumental singers behind them, had created something very special together.

Wigmore Mondays – Belcea Quartet: Recollections of Hans Keller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (cello)] Photo (c) Marco Borggreve

Haydn String Quartet in D minor Op.76/2 ‘Fifths’ (1797) (4:27 – 25:22 on the broadcast link)
Britten String Quartet no.3 Op.94 (1975) (28:18 – 56:35)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Hans Keller was one of the great musicologists and musical writers of the 20th century, and this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall marked the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday.

Despite his obvious talents as a writer and analyst Keller was a divisive figure, his forthright views often creating controversy, but the notes for the program accompanying this concert reflected a deeply passionate listener who simply loved the music of Haydn and Britten.

For Keller, Haydn was ‘musical history’s greatest thematic economist’ – a point borne out by the String Quartet in D minor Op.76/2. The nicknames applied to some of Haydn’s best-loved works are evocative, even if they do relegate some more deserving works to the sidelines. The ‘Fifths’ for this quartet refer not just to the melodic intervals in the first theme of the first movement (from 4:27 on the broadcast), where Corina Belcea’s first violin took an authoritative lead in this performance, but to the second theme too.

The discourse of the first movement was extremely satisfying in this performance, the Belcea Quartet lingering on one particularly spicy chord () while providing energy and passion. The second movement Andante (11:45), more a graceful minuet than a slow movement, had some lovely moments of radiance from all four players, with a lightness of touch carrying the whole way through.

In complete contrast the Menuetto itself (17:42) wore a stern expression, dramatically poised as its canon played out between upper and lower parts. It did relent a little however for its trio section (18:58), Haydn slipping into the major key for a rustic dance. Here the Belcea Quartet judged the speeds just right, leaning on the down beat perfectly, before the gruff Minuetto theme returned (20:16).

The finale, marked Vivace assai (21:11), began with a hushed urgency, the main theme a little flighty in Corina Belcea’s hands, but by the time Haydn transported the music into the major key the quartet had an assertive grip on the performance.

Hans Keller, as captured by his wife, the artist Milein Cosman

Benjamin Britten loved the music of Haydn, declaring ‘If I feel down when I go to bed, I take a Haydn quartet with me. It’s all in there.’ His own contributions to the string quartet have proved to be long lasting, but the third – dedicated to Hans Keller who had been persisting that Britten write it – is an extraordinary piece.

Britten conceived it in five movements which might look unconventional on paper, but which translate to an extremely clever interpretation of the traditional sonata form, impressing his friend Keller greatly. However the technical achievements are not at the expense of emotion, as the Belcea Quartet showed here. The first movement, Duets (28:18) pairs second violin with viola – Axel Schacher and Krzysztof Chorzelski beginning authoritatively – before first violin and cello add their thoughts (Belcea and Antoine Lederlin in similar unity of voice).

A scabrous Ostinato movement follows (34:24), the quartet stretched to their limits by Britten’s ‘multiple stopping’ (several notes played at once on each instrument) and on the edge emotionally, but brilliantly played here.

It felt like time ceased to exist for the Solo movement (38:04), Belcea finding a radiant calm in a hall so silent that even a passing tube train could be heard underneath. This was a deeply felt but incredibly free account from the violinist, its central section like a swift on the wing with no restrictions of movement or direction until pure stillness from 42:31.

Following this the forthright Burlesque (43:38), with its elements of Shostakovich, came as something of a shock – but led inevitably into the final Recitative and Passacaglia, subtitled La Serenissima (46:23). The shafts of bright light at the opening are unmistakeably linked to Aldeburgh, and here the quartet found yet another higher plain, Britten’s last substantial work playing out his last days but taking his leave in music of great restraint and beauty.

The reassuring rising motif of the Passacaglia (from 49:22) sets a firm base, from which Britten spins a number of variations. It ends openly (56:08), on a remarkable chord – as Keller says ‘a non-end’, Britten effectively declaring ‘I’m not dead yet’. It is a calling card for his music, restraint packed with hidden emotion – and the Belcea Quartet found its heart unerringly.

Further reading and listening

For more on Britten’s String Quartet no.3, you can visit this entry on the Good Morning Britten blog – an anniversary tribute to the composer from 2013 from yours truly.

Meanwhile the music played in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below, including the Belcea Quartet’s own recording of the Britten:

The six works making up Haydn’s Op.76 represent the pinnacle of his writing for string quartet, and can be heard below in one of several fine available versions, this one from the Hungarian Takács String Quartet:

Britten’s contribution to the string quartet repertoire is hardly negligible itself, mind, and Keller was in great awe of the String Quartet no.2 in particular. Here is a link to the Belcea Quartet’s recordings of that, the extrovert D major String Quartet no.1 and the youthful but assured 3 Divertimenti:

Timothy Ridout & Frank Dupree – Bridge, Britten & Bowen @ Wigmore Hall

Timothy Ridout (viola, above), Jack Dupree (piano, below)

Bridge Pensiero; Allegro appassionato (1908)
Britten Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland Op. 48a (1950)
Bowen Viola Sonata No. 1 in C minor Op. 18 (1907)

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 5 February 2019

Photo credit Kaupo Kikkas (Timothy Ridout)

Review by Ben Hogwood

The first Tuesday in the month usually brings with it a lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall from an artist on the YCAT roster. YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust) is a charitable organisation looking after the development of emerging classical artists. A snapshot of its alumni (Alison Balsom, Simon Haram, the Belcea Quartet and Sean Shibe) bears testament to the success of their program and the longevity of the careers they boost.

On this evidence, viola player Timothy Ridout is another who looks set for great things – as does German pianist Frank Dupree, with whom he gave this recital. Dupree was demonstrating his versatility with a second appearance at the hall in nine days (previously appearing with BBC New Generation artist, trumpeter Simon Höfele)

The pair began with two compositions by Frank Bridge, himself a viola player – but one who seemed reluctant to write anything substantial for his own instrument. The Pensiero and Allegro appassionato are the only works that survive. Written in 1908, they fall into Bridge’s late Romantic period and make a very satisfying double. Ridout played the Pensiero affectionately and with a beautiful tone, which opened out for the surge of the Allegro appassionato that followed.

Bridge and Benjamin Britten enjoyed an inspirational creative partnership, the elder man a lasting influence on his pupil. Britten’s Lachrymae is his major work for viola and piano, though is more commonly heard in its orchestral arrangement. It is a masterful set of variations on a song by John Dowland, If my complaints could passions move, and reverses the variation format so that we hear all the variations first and the tune right at the end. He also refers to a second Dowland song, Flow my tears, in the course of the piece.

Ridout and Dupree gave a superb performance, atmospheric right from the start with a commendable attention to detail and a brooding passion which was unleashed in the fifth and sixth variations. The dynamic shadings were exquisitely realised, Ridout’s tone was beautifully judged, and Dupree’s punctuation marks were ideally clipped in the seventh variation.

Finally a very different form of Englishness was heard in the form of York Bowen’s Viola Sonata no.1. Bowen wrote this at the age of 20, and it shows an early command of the required form, as well as melodic invention, which both players clearly enjoyed. There was humour, too, in the coda parts of the first movement, and in the closing pages, which felt like a race to the finish between the two.

The sonata’s dimensions are considerable – 29 minutes in this performance – but the work did not outstay its welcome, thanks to the energy of the outer movements. These drove forward with great enthusiasm and lyrical input. Ridout’s tone was consistently strong and rich in the low register, his phrasing ideal – while Dupree matched him note for note in the tricky accompaniment. The slow movement found the emotional heart of the piece, but the sweeping optimism of the last movement stayed with the audience the longest.

As a nicely chosen encore Ridout introduced Bowen’s Melody for the G string (1917), its title a lightly humourous take on Bach’s Air but also rooting the viola player to the same string for the whole five minutes. With a charming tune, it provided a winsome finish to a very fine concert.

More music

You can watch Timothy and Jack in York Bowen’s Romance below, also at the Wigmore Hall:

Meanwhile to hear the music in this concert, the Spotify playlist below includes all the works performed, in versions currently available:

Timothy has not yet recorded any of the works featured, but his debut disc for Champs Hill is well worth hearing – the complete works for viola and piano by Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps:

Links

You can find out more about the work of YCAT and their artists on their website