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Aldeburgh Strings delivers fresh and energetic performances of Britten's finest music for string ensemble. Young Apollo and Lachrymae introduce, respectively, expert piano and viola soloists, before the technical wizardry of the precocious Prelude and Fugue leads us into one of the great masterpieces: the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Award-winning tenor Allan Clayton and horn player Richard Watkins are the soloists, the latter reprising his role 30 years after first performing it with Peter Pears.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
For reasons he never explained at the time, Britten abruptly decided to withdraw Young Apollo from circulation after its first two performances and it was not heard again until 1979, nearly three years after his death. It is possible that he was dissatisfied with the work’s boldly static tonal plan, which consists of a largely unrelenting elaboration of the central A major tonality—which he confessed was inspired by the minimalist approach to harmony sometimes shown by the German Baroque composer Dietrich Buxtehude, whose music he at this time greatly admired. The specific choice of key is significant, for Britten was frequently to return to it in later works when he wished to capture the essence of Apollonian purity. (In his final opera Death in Venice (1973), for instance, it is the tonality adopted by Apollo himself as well as by the beautiful Polish boy Tadzio.) This key symbolism clearly held some deeply personal significance for Britten, and we now know that the real reason he suppressed Young Apollo was his love for the handsome young man who had directly inspired it: Wulff Scherchen, son of the renowned German conductor Hermann Scherchen. Britten wrote to Wulff (who had remained in Europe) from Amityville, New York, on 8 December 1939 shortly before the work’s second and final performance: ‘I’m playing my “Young Apollo” which I wrote for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.—on Columbia (CBS Radio) on Dec. 20th, sometime in the middle of your night—you know whom that’s written about … my God, don’t I long to see you again.’ Britten’s ongoing infatuation with Wulff, the situation hardly helped by the fact that the object of his affection was a German citizen at a time of war between their two countries, was a cause of some embarrassment to the composer’s close friends; and it most certainly did not please Pears, coinciding as it did with a period in which he and Britten were in the process of placing their own personal and professional relationships on a much more intimate footing.
The English conductor Boyd Neel, who founded the pioneering Boyd Neel String Orchestra in 1933, had recognized Britten’s creative talent and special affinity for stringed instruments at an early stage in the composer’s career. In 1937, Neel had commissioned Britten to write his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (at exceptionally short notice) for a prestigious performance at the Salzburg Festival, having been greatly impressed by the efficiency with which the young composer had dashed off a score for the feature film Love from a Stranger during the previous autumn. (Neel was the music director for this Agatha Christie movie, and conducted the orchestra for the soundtrack recording). The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the complete draft of which was composed by Britten in just ten days, proved to be a veritable tour-de-force of string-orchestra writing, and it caused a considerable sensation at the Salzburg premiere; Neel later described it as ‘one of the most astonishing feats of composition in my experience’, and a work in which ‘the resources of the string orchestra were exploited with a daring and invention never before known’. On 28 August 1937, the Salzburg press, Salzburger Volksblatt, was lavish in its praise of Neel’s fine ensemble:
A dozen and a half young musicians (two ladies among them) have come together, exceptional instruments in their hands, in creative chamber-music making of the most serious artistic intentions and assiduous study, bearing a very personal stamp. The volume of tone which the conductor elicits from his small ensemble is magnificent, as is the astonishing technique and interpretative approach which are discernible in every nuance.
Neel’s orchestra celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1943, a particularly difficult year for the ensemble since half its membership had already been lost to the armed services and the conductor himself was fully occupied with medical work on behalf of the war effort. He managed to re-assemble the other half of his regular players, combining them with freelance performers and obtaining special leave from his medical duties in order to mount an anniversary concert at the Wigmore Hall on 23 June. On this occasion he was proud to be able to present the premiere of a new work which Britten had composed during the previous month, the Prelude and Fugue, Op 29, in which (with characteristic ingenuity) the composer had contrived to write a separate part for each of the eighteen players in the orchestra by way of a uniquely personalized anniversary present. The Fugue is characteristic of the composer’s delight in tackling a seemingly impossible challenge, with its sophisticated contrapuntal textures at times recalling the antiphonal sonorities of J S Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in the instrumental sub groupings. Neel described the strikingly geometric physical appearance of an elaborate stretto passage in the score as resembling ‘one side of the Great Pyramid’ and delighted in the way Britten’s fugue subject was elsewhere ‘tossed from one [player] to another like a ping-pong ball on a fountain’. But it is the shorter Prelude, later recapitulated as a coda, which looks ahead most vividly to the haunting lyricism which was later to characterize the music of the mature opera composer, and this is one of the last works in which we find Britten indulging in the exuberant technical wizardry of his youthful period.
When Britten was preoccupied with plans for his opera Peter Grimes in the summer of 1942, he met the horn player Dennis Brain and immediately contemplated producing a horn concerto for the brilliant 21-year-old. At the suggestion of his publisher Erwin Stein, Britten elected to write an orchestral song cycle that would include a solo horn as a prominent obbligato instrument. The vocal soloist was to be Pears, who was due to take the title role in Peter Grimes; Britten’s new song cycle thus conveniently combined his desire to gain practical experience in vocal composition with the projected horn concerto. Britten’s letters from the period show that the cycle was provisionally entitled ‘Nocturne’ or ‘Nocturnes’ since all the poems dealt with the subject of dusk and evening. Retitled Serenade for tenor, horn and strings and completed in the month before Britten wrote his Prelude and Fugue for Neel, the work was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 15 October 1943 with an ad hoc string orchestra conducted by Walter Goehr. An instant success, it firmly secured the international reputations of both Britten and Pears. After Brain’s tragically premature death in a car accident in 1957, Britten paid tribute to his contribution as the first interpreter of the horn part, and praised his intense respect for the composer’s wishes no matter how technically difficult the challenge he had been set.
Britten took considerable care over his selection of the poetic texts for the Serenade, and was assisted in this task by the critic and novelist Edward Sackville-West, to whom he dedicated the score (and with whom he was to collaborate on the BBC radio drama The Rescue later this same year). The work marks Britten’s renewed commitment to setting his native language after the recent excursions into French and Italian in the song cycles Les Illuminations, Op 18 (1939) and Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940) respectively. (Les Illuminations was also conceived for string orchestra, and its premiere had been conducted by Neel while Britten was still in the United States.) The Serenade was also the first work in which Britten explored the musical and rhythmic possibilities of English diction in a manner directly inspired by the example of Henry Purcell, whose influence is to be felt in the arioso style of the closing Keats setting, and perhaps also in the inclusion of a ground bass in the central ‘Dirge’.
Although in its definitive form the Serenade consists of six movements framed by a prologue and epilogue for solo horn, the manuscript of a seventh movement originally intended for the cycle was discovered in 1987. This is a setting of ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ by Tennyson, and the autograph had lain long-forgotten amongst Stein’s papers until it was unearthed by his daughter, Marion Thorpe. It is not clear why Britten decided to reject this splendid song from the cycle, although since the work already includes another text by Tennyson (the ‘Nocturne’) he may have felt its retention would upset the balance of the cycle as a whole. Intriguingly, the rejected Tennyson setting is uncannily close in style to material in his later song cycle Nocturne (1958), which picked up the rejected working title for the Serenade and in many ways constituted a sequel to the earlier work.
Lachrymae, Op 48a—subtitled ‘reflections on a song of Dowland’—was composed in April 1950 for the Scottish viola player William Primrose and first performed (in its original incarnation for viola and piano) at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. In 1976, the piano part was arranged for small string orchestra at the suggestion of Cecil Aronowitz, who performed it in this new version at the Aldeburgh Festival the following year, just six months after Britten’s death. The work is a satisfying synthesis of various musical elements carrying a strong personal significance for the composer. In the first place, the viola had been his own instrument since childhood and, although his recorded legacy as a violist consisted of the modest contribution of a single (but crucial) note in Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note with the Zorian Quartet in 1946, as a composer he fully exploited the instrument’s capability for producing intensely mellow sonorities in both orchestral and chamber works. Second, in casting Lachrymae in the form of a seamlessly evolving set of variations Britten was able to draw on the vast experience he had gained with this musical structure in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, his decision to select as the basis for the piece John Dowland’s famous song ‘If my complaints could passions move’ (from the First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597) continued the celebration of his English musical and literary heritage that had constituted a fundamental part of his art since his return home from America in the early 1940s. In the middle of the piece, Britten alludes to another famous Dowland song, ‘Flow My Tears’ (Second Booke of Songes, 1600).
Dowland’s theme has a strong rising and falling shape which helps make Britten’s transformations of it readily comprehensible to the listener. Tremolo allusions to its melodic profile at the opening usher in a quiet statement of the theme in the left hand of the piano, but the harmony remains complex and elusive until the very end of the work when, in a moment both technically adept and artistically magical, Britten’s music gradually merges into the simple but expressive harmonic idiom of Dowland’s original song. This idea of a theme and variations ‘in reverse’, as it were, was later adopted by Britten in his second set of Dowland ‘reflections’ for solo guitar (Nocturnal, composed for Julian Bream in 1963) and in the treatment of Russian themes in the Third Suite for Cello (composed for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1971).
Mervyn Cooke © 2016