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Britten’s Pure Admiration for Purcell


A simmering Charles Blandy (file photo)

The second concert in the Emmanuel Music’s Britten festival weekend focused on his second quartet and his setting of sonnets by John Donne with emotionally riveting performances unlike those in the first of the three-concert offering during the night before. As Lee Eiseman’s review [HERE] of that concert attests, Britten himself was somewhat defensive about the naiveté of his early, teen-age work. Artistic Director Ryan Turner told the audience that yesterday’s program would show that Britten left behind his “intellectual restlessness” for his mature musical development—a fair analysis. Already signed up to attend all three concerts, this writer, having stepped into the reviewer’s role on short notice, is pleased to report on a very rewarding Saturday afternoon.

The influence of Purcell, whom Britten held in great esteem, infused the entire event. Britten filled his Quartet No. 2 in C Major, written in 1945 for the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, with the earlier composer’s expressive devices, though transformed by 20th-century sensibilities. And in particular, his use of the archaic term Chacony for the third movement paid special homage. The Arneis Quartet (first violinist Heather Braun-Bakken, second violinist Rose Drucker, violist Daniel Doña, and cellist Agnes Kim) ably met Britten’s demands for the expressive possibilities of the quartet medium. Doña also wrote the very lucid, erudite program notes. [HERE]

After experiencing the horrors of a liberated concentration camp, Britten turned to the searing poignancy of Purcell’s legacy and John Donne’s intense metaphysical poetry for the Holy Sonnets of John Donne for tenor and piano, op. 35. Turner notes that “While Purcell’s Divine Hymns are undoubtedly the strongest influence on the Donne Sonnets, the close relationship between vocal line and accompaniment also suggests an understanding of Hugo Wolf’s fluent techniques, while Britten’s habit of hitting on a unifying motif for a song recalls his beloved Schubert.” And in almost all the nine songs, the character of the music changed at the traditional sonnet divisions. Britten’s use of expanded tonality allowed for dramatic lyric flow as well as the conjuring of effects such as the tic-toc that begins and ends “Oh Might Those Sounds and Teares,” or the pealing bells of at the start of “A the Round Earth’s Imagin’d Corners.” The first song, “Job’s Curse,” came replete with the earlier musician’s stylistic signatures, especially at the end of phrases. Bright lyric tenor Charles Blandy’s dramatic interpretations, surprisingly evocative of Britten’s life partner Peter Pears, perfectly reflected the changing emotions in the texts. Several moments showed particular drama, such as when when Blandy sang “qui-et” and the piano echoed it with two solo notes, and in the powerful ending of “Oh, My Black Soule!” with strong, repetitive tonic chords to the lines, “Oh wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this night That being red, it dyes red soules to white.” It left the audience stunned by the pounding intensity.

Pianist Linda Osborn engaged so deeply with Britten’s exposed emotionality that I could not help but think of Puccini, especially in Donne’s most famous poems: “Batter My Heart,” and “Death Be Not Proud.”

In Sunday’s final concert at Emmanuel Church at 3 pm, the Lydian Quartet will essay Britten’s third after an assorted first half.

Bettina A. Norton, emerita editor of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

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