BRITTEN SERENADE A RARE MUSICAL TREAT AT NEW WORLD SYMPHONY
By Lawrence Budmen
Benjamin Britten was one of the towering figures of English music in the 20th century. A superb conductor, musicologist, and founder of opera companies, festivals, and chamber orchestras, Britten made a lasting contribution to British culture. Above all he was a great composer with a special gift for opera and vocal music. His "Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings" Opus 31 formed the centerpiece of the final concert of the New World Symphony's "British Music Celebration" on November 24, 2002 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach.
This 1942 work was composed for the British tenor Peter Pears, the composer's friend and artistic associate and muse, and the horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. The music is a setting of six English poems with prologue, interlude, and epilogue for solo horn. This strangely haunting work is music of austere lyricism, tinged with elements of British folk song. Its tragic tone reflects the war years in which the score was written. The horn part calls for a degree of virtuoso precision heretofore never attempted on the instrument. The tenor writing calls for the singer to remain for long periods in the voice's upper register. For all its musical difficulty, this score is a truly remarkable work. Its music remains in the mind's ear long after a performance has ended. It also reflects a distinctive musical voice. Few composers could combine lyrical eloquence, economy of musical means, and strong, direct reference to indigenous folk song as Britten could.
The British tenor John Mark Ainsley gave a remarkable performance of Britten's all too rarely heard score. Ainsley is a specialist in Mozart and Baroque opera. Britten's music has played an increasingly important part in his career in recent years and he may well inherent the artistic mantle of Peter Pears and Phillip Langridge in this repertoire. He possesses a large, effortless tenor voice. His top register has a soft, lovely sound. His high pianissimos have an otherworldly beauty. His clear enunciation and attention to the text while singing such difficult music is remarkable. In the "Dirge" movement, when Ainsley sang the line "and Christ receive thy soul" the effect was chilling and deeply moving. He is a rare phenomenon. Not only is he an outstanding singer, he is a true artist. Richard Watkins, a member of London's Nash Ensemble and former principal horn of the Philharmonia Orchestra, played the difficult horn solos with sonorous tonal beauty, absolute precision, perfect intonation, and a vaulting, devil may care ease that was a joy to behold. The New World Symphony's principal guest conductor Alasdair Neale was conducting the Britten score for the first time in his career. As always, this San Francisco based conductor brought attention to musical detail, an innate sense of the composer's musical idiom, and a wonderful flowing musical line to his performance. The string playing had a silky, beautiful tonal glow. Neale caught the elegiac, twilight quality in the music. A magnificent performance of a remarkable work!
The Britten score was framed by two works by Sir Edward Elgar. The "Cockaigne Overture - In London Town," Opus 40 (1901) is often played for loud, brilliant musical effects. Neale found the poetry in this familiar score. He caressed the lyrical second theme with broadly eloquent phrasing. Every minute instrumental detail was clear. The folksy quality of the music was allowed to charm. This performance reminded the listener of the real musical glow of the score.
Elgar's "Symphony No. 1 in A Flat Major," Opus 55 (1899) is a big, bold romantic symphony in the 19th century tradition with a decidedly English musical accent. It was dedicated to the conductor Hans Richter, a friend of Brahms, who conducted the first performances. This music has everything - lush, lyrical themes, brilliant orchestral bombast, march like rhythms, folksy dances. In a first rate performance it can be wonderful. That is exactly how it sounded under Neale's splendid baton. The opening Andante:Nobilmente e semplice was taken at a measured tempo. The playing of the violas was golden toned and beautiful. The second movement Allegro molto was all balletic swiftness and elegance. The Adagio had a long songful line and wistful melancholy. (Neale is one of the rare conductors who do not confuse melancholy with bathos.) The concluding Allegro was all fire and folksy energy, leading to a triumphant restatement of the symphony's opening theme. Neale's sense of musical proportion and ability to sustain the musical line and continuity between (as well as within) movements was awesome. The orchestral playing was superb with glowing brass, sweet toned winds, and warm, singing string playing.
Again Alasdair Neale proved to be a conductor of rare musical gifts. His rapport with the young musicians of the New World Symphony is total. The magnificent performance of Britten's "Serenade" made this concert a rare musical treat!