Every season the musical citizens of Emmanuel Music, under its grab-you-by-the-lapels artistic direction of Ryan Turner, can be counted on to bring intensity and commitment to thematically coherent chamber programming. This weekend, songs and string quartets of Benjamin Britten come under their probing lens, with concerts slated for Saturday and Sunday at 3pm, coming after Friday night’s opener. Emmanuel Music will be recognizing Christmas Eve with Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.
Following classic strawman practice, Turner noted the resistance of a perhaps less than prescient Igor Stravinsky, who famously disparaged Britten’s War Requiem as a “Honegger-type cinemascope epic …”. (Britten had earlier described Stravinsky’s A Rake’s Progress thus: “I liked everything about the opera very much, everything but the music.”) And there were many who found Britten’s pacifism in the face of Hitler’s depredations to be self-serving. But enter the canon Britten certainly did, even if for many, his output, with exceptions like Peter Grimes, can sometimes seem merely facile.
Britten’s highly regarded text setting shows a mastery few have equaled, musicking the rhythms of upper-crust British speech to a fare-thee-well, but that may be faint praise considering how naked the music of last night’s songs would feel without the poets’ contributions. Can one imagine this repertoire turned into songs without words? Describing the opening set Tit for Tat (1931), Turner quotes Britten:
Most of the settings are, of course, very naive, but I have chosen those which seem to me to be as complete an expression as is possible from a composer in his early teens. Once or twice when the fumblings were too obvious, the experienced middle-aged composer has come to the aid of the beginner…. I hold no claims for the songs’ importance or originality … [but] I do feel that the boy’s vision has a simplicity and clarity which might have given a little pleasure to the great poet, with his unique insight into a child’s mind.
Baritone David Tinervia, who studied with Benjamin Luxon (who himself had studied with Britten), and that essential pianist Judith Gordon, who leaves no nuance undernourished, channeled the enchantment of precocious children to begin the evening’s enterprise, partnering exquisitely in the five songs. Tinervia produced well-supported tones of quiet wonder, at times reaching us as half-sung conversation and at other moments blustering with enjoyable force. The title song “Tit for Tat” firmly if whimsically dissed the hunting practices of the gentry: “Have you whistled ‘No, nunny’ and gunned a poor bunny, or blinded a poor bird of the air?”
The first two portions of Gordon’s solo turn in Three Character Pieces for Piano came with childlike mercurial changes of mood—at turns petulant and yielding. In the third, which made more-technical demands in its watery Debussyesqueness, the pianist seemed to revel.
A Charm of Lullabies for mezzo and piano brought Carrie Cheron to the stage. With rolled Rs and genial tones, she at once she found the perfect English pastoral tone in which to elucidate Bobbie Burns’s “Highland Balou.” Her take on the strange lullabies that followed combined humor and frenetic exasperation with elegance. A couple of theatrical diminuendos ravished this listener. The “Nurse’s Song” found the mezzo trying to quiet a chromatic baby. When a triple-forte “lullaby baby” didn’t succeed in knocking out the resistant infant, she ended the song (as she had begun it) with a lovely a cappella “Lullalbylabylabylaby baby.”
Then perforce came a work from Britten’s chief rival for Great Britain’s musical laurels. Britten’s realization of a piano accompaniment for “No, resistance is but vain” from Purcell’s incidental music to the masque The Maid’s Last Prayer, or Any rather than Fail, made this pungent duet delight accessible to 1945 concertgoers, who had not known Purcell the way we do. With straighter tones, but hardly straight-toned, Cheron and Tinervia “Captivated Our Hearts” in this poignant delicacy.
Written to a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1941, while Britten took refuge in a California beach house, avoiding the unpleasant realities of war, the String Quartet No. 1 won a medal for the composer (before it was even completed, apparently) … though not for bravery. It opens with a redolent if very dangerous shimmer of harmonics from the upper strings above cello pizzi which the ad hoc foursome (Heidi Braun-Hill and Sarah Atwood violins, Noriko Futagami viola, and Guy Fishman cello) did not entirely master. That passage requires a uniformity of vibrato, precision of tuning, and unanimity of phrasing and articulation which only fulltime ensembles can achieve. In general, though, the four players did make committed cause with Britten’s clever curlicues and, in the close of the mini-grosse fuge fourth movement, found emphatic unison vehemence.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer