Monday, March 16, 2009

Benjamin Britten and friends

Maggi Hambling's monument to Britten on Aldeburgh beach in Suffolk. The inscription reads: "I hear those voices that will not be drowned," a line from Peter Grimes.

I heard the Cantata Singers in an unusual program on Friday night - although I came out of a vague, but mistaken idea that I'd be hearing some Britten vocal work (note to self: read publicity more carefully!), instead I heard Beethoven's "other" mass, the Mass in C Major, a Britten orchestral suite (close enough) and a lovely choral ode from Gerald Finzi, a composer I knew next to nothing about. So I left pleased and educated, just not by the music I expected.

At any rate, the Cantata Singers are engaged in a season-long examination of Britten's legacy (the composer, at left), and they've produced a genuinely handsome companion to the concert series that's full of information and thoughtful analysis regarding Britten, who has slowly, along with Shostakovich, Sibelius and other figures, taken his rightful place in the pantheon of great, mostly-tonal twentieth-century composers. (There's another "revolutionary" pavilion, that nobody much visits, that James Levine is building nearby.) I wasn't quite sure what to make of the Beethoven/Britten/Finzi juxtaposition - the Beethoven and the Finzi are nominally church music, but the Britten is an operatic suite of exotic delicacy. There is, I suppose, an argument to be made that in this first Mass, Beethoven manages a mirroring between text and music that is faintly Brittenesque (although the chorus didn't sing it that way). But the Finzi was pretty much straightforward, compassionate British romanticism. Oh well. It's all good, as my nephews like to say.

And indeed, most of it was good. The Mass in C Major is a work of complexity and contrast, with something of Beethoven's usual sense of heroic struggle moving beneath its juxtapositions of color and structure. Hoose grouped his soloists with his chorus, behind the orchestra, which makes sense in that Beethoven never fashions them any star turns (there are no solo arias). But only his mezzo and baritone, Lynn Torgove and Dana Whiteside, really had the power to cut through the orchestral playing and create their own profiles. Still, soprano Karyl Ryczek's voice glowed with a ripe, delicate bloom, even if it trembled a bit on its stem, and tenor Stephen Williams offered a light, agile tone and thoughtful phrasing. Meanwhile the chorus sang with vigor; Hoose brought real feeling to the joyful outbursts of the Gloria, and kept an intelligent sense of command throughout the complicated and demanding Credo. But the chorus probably sounded best in the heartfelt, prayerful mode that both opened the Kyrie and closed the Agnus Dei.

Next was the orchestral suite drawn from Britten's last opera Death in Venice, which had no chorus, but a kind of substitute in the full kitchen of percussion lining the back of the orchestra. The piece is far more astringent than the lush Mahler passages Visconti chose for the movie (which Britten reportedly found sentimental and vulgar), and welds a mournful irony with a kind of sparkling erotic torment, lightly voiced by all that percussion. The orchestra was better at the work's glittering surface than it was at its convoluted, deeper mood, but conductor Hoose once again impressed with his command of the overall arc of the piece.

The concert shifted gears yet again with Gerald Finzi's "Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice," which is a somewhat purple title for a piece that is both an ode to the rite of Holy Communion, and a heartfelt lamentation for the great sacrifice which Finzi had just seen concluded (it was written in 1946 and orchestrated in 1947). How, precisely, does melody bear (much less convey) the weight of such experience? Pieces like Finzi's inevitably beg this question. "Sacrifice" is neither particularly complex nor intellectually challenging; it is simply gently heartbreaking, and the Cantata Singers did its deep feeling full justice.

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