Robin Tritschler (tenor, above), Gary Matthewman (piano)
Wigmore Hall, London, 4 April 2016
written by Ben Hogwood
Audio (open in a new window)
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)
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.
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.
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!
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: