Emmanuel Music offered three concerts last weekend, each mixing one of the composer’s three string quartets, at least one song cycle, and at least one individual small chamber music work. Most of the repertory was not exceptionally well known in Britten’s output, but the third concert, which I heard, provided a welcome opportunity to hear two relatively early pieces in the first half and Britten’s final composition in the last.
In 1950, Britten composed Lachrymae, a set of variations on John Dowland’s famous song of lamentatation, “If my complaints could passions move.” Since it forms the basis for Britain’s Lachrymae, Ryan Turner, the Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music, quite sensibly placed the Dowland at the beginning, to ensure that listeners would know the basic materials of the Britten’s piece for viola and piano. Tenor William Hite sang the mournful song, accompanied by pianist Brett Hodgdon. Then violist Mark Berger played Britten’s work, subtitled “Reflections on a Song of John Dowland.” These reflections came from passages from the song presented at first in a shattered sequence, largely creating new shapes out parts of the song evoking a deeply sad view of love. At the high point, the viola passionately plays the climactic phrase of another song, Flow, my tears. Once this is past, we finally hear the original song presented as if all the pent-up inherent sadness is squeezed into the complete final statement. Berger and Hodgdon effected a rapprochement between the composer the song, who described himself as semper dolens (always grieving) and its 20th-century echo.
The title of Britten’s Thomas Hardy cycle, Winter Words (1953), suggests something entirely chill and cold. And though such a personality is often to be found in Hardy’s work, both in novels and poems, the cycle is more varied than one might expect. To be sure, the first song, “At Day-close in Winter,” harks back to the opening of Schubert’s Winterreise, which Britten had performed and recorded with his life-partner Peter Pears. But the overall thrust of the songs is not as suicidal as the Schubert cycle, A small boy rides the train, anticipation future travels as yet un-guessed. Young birds sing. A boy with a violin waiting in the train station plays for a convict in handcuffs. The last song’s text struck Britten strongly. He used it late in life as the title of an orchestral work: A Time There Was…When All Went Well. All of these songs call for a generally spare texture and vocal lines that project the words clearly (Britten learned a good deal from Purcell). But Sunday found Hite in fine form, with wonderful clarity of tone and enunciation. Over the years, he has progressed from strength to strength as a singer of songs.
The last half of the program consisted of Britten’s last work, his String Quartet No. 3, in G Major; Op. 94, performed by the excellent Lydian Quartet (Andrea Segar and Judith Eissenberg, violins, Mark Berger, viola, and Joshua Gordon, cello). Britten partly composed it in a city he loved, and the site of his final opera, Death in Venice. The five movements basically alternate faster and slower tempos, with the fast movements in second and fourth position. The Lydian players masterfully projected the moods and light textures (as the duet patterns of the first movement, and the dying away effect of the closing Passacaglia, sharply contrasted with the fast Ostinato of the second movement and the wild Burlesque of the fourth. In my experience, at least, this is been the least often performed of Britten’s string quartets; I am especially grateful for this luminous and dramatic reading.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.