Alongside a series in this season's programme billed as 'new romantics', there is space for a few of the older ones, such as tonight's Berlioz and Schumann, with Britten's lush and emotional Nocturne sandwiched in between.
While the Schumann was getting its second Edinburgh outing in less than a year, both the Berlioz and Britten enjoy less frequent exposure. Funnily enough, though, the Berlioz seemed familiar on account of its being characteristic Berlioz. There is the usual virtuosity of orchestration, the usual shortness of phrase, the usual ebullient rhythmic drive. But Ticciati made more of it, polishing what might easily have been just a routine opening warm-up to a jewel-like brilliance.
The Britten, on the other hand, is neither familiar nor—going by some overheard chat while leaving the hall—particularly welcome. In that respect, there are similarities with the Nielsen symphony and its half-audience last summer: things are unfamiliar because they aren't often played, but if they aren't often played they stay unfamiliar. Although the availability of recordings ought to fix that, there is still the problem of how you’d know you wanted to buy the CD in the first place.
With Britten in particular, and the Nocturne in particular there is another difficulty with perceived modern-ness. It is a bit bewildering when people like Ravel still get called 'modern'—and Britten is scarcely more challenging than Ravel, one wouldn't have thought. To someone who likes 'modern' music, in other words, Britten isn't that modern at all, and so the conversation stalls. The Nocturne is unusual in its scoring (tenor, string orchestra, and seven obbligato instruments), which means that ensembles like the SCO are ideal for taking it on; but then there is a final hurdle. There is something very south-east-English about the work; it isn't just about who will play it, but where too.
That said, it is a wonderful piece of craftsmanship and imagination. If the Romantic style places a high premium on textuality, Britten's skill in choosing texts meets the challenge superbly. One might point out that in the actual Romantic era there were no British composers making settings of the great contemporary poets, an absent repertoire that might have contextualized the modernist gesture in other circumstances. Not that Britten is a critical reader, in the sense that most notably in Wilfred Owen's 'The Kind Ghosts' he sets a superficial reading that discards the author’s darker, satirical intention in favour of Owen's mellifluous ear for language.
Indeed, the score marries mellifluous language to sensuous music, at times playful and at times tart, with an underlying sense of formal direction that distinguishes it from the two better-known works for solo voice and string orchestra, Les Illuminations and the Serenade. The opening rocking motif seems to have an erudite textual echo in Sibelius's tone poem Tapiola, drawing the listener in to a dark and eldritch realm of nocturnal phantasmagoria.
It's such a pleasure to hear the work performed that it almost seems superfluous to comment on the performance, especially as a hazard of CD-only familiarity is that one can become excessively attached to one recording's way of doing things. In that regard only one point seems worth making: John Mark Ainsley rendered his interpretation with great insight, projection and diction. At the climax, on the words 'sleep no more' from Wordsworth's The Prelude, where Peter Pears sings the line, Ainsley declaimed it—and that is what the score calls for, in fact. The obbligato soloists—each taking a poem in turn until the flute and clarinet duet in the penultimate 'sleep and poetry' (Keats), and the tutti finale—each brought added character to the reading.
Schumann's fourth symphony, as previously mentioned, received an excellent performance in a strikingly different context when the RSNO did it last spring. Under Robin Ticciati, with the stage crowded with extra resources, it received another fine interpretation—though on this occasion there was an evident, intense relish on the conductor's part. As a result, this was a vivid performance, rich in detailed nuance, once more immaculately paced and thought through.
Photo: John Mark Ainsley
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