Violist Sarah Darling, a tireless force of musical curiosity, skill, and enthusiasm, curated A Far Cry’s “Albion,” a paean to British music. In its first decade, this conductor-free ensemble has earned and sustained a reputation for top-drawer playing, engrossing programming, and outstanding guest artists. Friday in Jordan Hall, distinguished guest hornist Hazel Dean Davis and the sensational lyric tenor, Nicholas Phan, once again made a case for our elevated expectations.
Of the incidental music and songs of Purcell, Matthew Locke (1621-1677), Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666), and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), only Purcell’s “Sweeter than Roses” was familiar, so it was a treat to discover so much pleasant music, played and sung to perfection. Matthew Locke’s examples from The Tempest and The Fairy Queen as well as his Evening Hymn quite entranced. Throughout the first half, Catherine Liddell made of her theorbo an artistically supportive partner to singer and ensemble. Nicholas Phan puts English across beautifully—no mean feat—and he lent eloquent soulfulness and intelligent refinement to every note he sang. The way he modulated his ravishing lyric instrument disclosed an almost infinite range of color, dynamic and nuance from almost conversational to powerful and theatric.
The very rarely played (or recorded) and thoroughly enjoyable five-movement Concerto Grosso by Vaughan Williams made us take notice. Always interested in education, the composer wrote this for the Rural Schools Music Association, which premiered it in 1950. Essayist Katherine Allwine Bacasmot explained, “In this work the ensemble is divided into sections playing at varying levels that are integrated within the traditional concerto gross structure a smaller group called the “concertino” performing against the whole ensemble called “ripieno” or in this case tutti. Vaughan Williams pairs the “advanced” music with the “concertino,” the “intermediate” with the tutti and adds another grouping, “ad lib,” for the novice.
The irresistible draw for this concert was, of course, Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, one of the 20th century’s greatest song cycles. Britten began his Serenade under the working title of Nocturnes. It was intended for the voice of Peter Pears alone, but in 1943 Britten met the young horn player Dennis Brain (1921-1957) when he was playing in the RAF Central Band, for which Britten was writing incidental music for a series of wartime radio documentaries. He was struck by how Brain played “as flexibly and accurately as most clarinetists, and is a sweet and intelligent person as well.” At one of the rehearsals for Britten’s unpublished dramas, An American in England, Brain asked Britten to write him a concerto, but Britten chose to use his long-time partner, Peter Pears as the vocal partner. The work debuted on October 15, 1943 at Wigmore Hall in London with Brain and Peter Pears and Walter Goehr conducting. In a letter to his friend Elizabeth Mayer, the composer described the piece as “not important stuff, but quite pleasant I think.” The Serenade is dedicated to Edward Sackville-West, who served as a quasi-consultant, playing a key role in Britten’s text selection of British folksongs and poets including John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ben Jonson,and William Blake. The horn writing is quite unusual, deploying the instrument’s capabilities to paint pictures alongside and over the strings and tenor.
The work’s Prologue and Epilogue are identical unaccompanied solos written for the natural horn, using only those pitches—the harmonic series built on a pedal F (the F an octave above, the C the fifth above that, the F a fourth above that, etc., in increasingly smaller intervals)—that would have been playable on the earliest of horns. Because of the physical properties of the harmonic series, some of these pitches sound out of tune to ears used to the even-tempering of the modern piano. (For example, the seventh, eleventh, and fourteenth harmonics are all noticeably flat, while the thirteenth is almost a quarter-tone sharp.) Britten was well aware of this effect and used it intentionally, taking a reviewer to task for criticizing Brain’s intonation and claiming that “anyone who plays it ‘in tune’ is going directly against my wishes!” Brain was a master of natural horn technique, once performing a Leopold Mozart concerto on a garden hose.
Every major British singer since Pears—Robert Tear, Philip Langridge, John Mark Ainsley, Ian Bostridge, and more—has recorded the Serenade, and while Phan (American-born to Chinese and Greek parents) has not yet recorded this work, he has certainly established himself as a brilliant Britten singer over the past few years. I am, unabashedly, a serious fan, having heard him every time he has sung in Boston the last several years (Ralph Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock’s Edge” with Music from Marlboro, Celebrity Series of Boston Debut Series, a special concert at the Gardner Museum a few months back [reviewed HERE]), and have worn out his two all Britten CDs, (“Winter Words” and “Still Fall the Rain”) and admired his recent “Gods and Monsters.” What makes Phan so extraordinary, especially as a Britten singer, are attributes that serve him in all other repertoire as well: perfect enunciation, a perfect sense of pitch, charm, refulgent tone, and an understanding of how to transmit poetry’s meaning and essence. And he clearly listed to and responded to the masterful colorings and sensitivity to text of hornist Davis. One could say that her horn could sing and recite, while Phan could answer with instrumental as well as human timbres.
This, like the usual Far Cry concert, was simply extraordinary by any measure. One almost forgets how tough it is to perform music as moody as the Britten without a conductor. One never forgets how hard it is to sing, and to play the horn so gorgeously. Bravi tutti!
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.