Every year’s Proms has several thematic threads, often celebrating anniversaries and birthdays. This year, no exception, had a large number of performances commemorating the centennials of the births of Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutoslawski, and a bunch of them occurred during the slice of the Proms that I was around for. In the concerts in the Albert Hall Britten was represented by Les Illuminations, performed by Ian Bostridge and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Harding, in their concert on August 20. Les Illuminations sets poems of Rimbaud, a poet whose work was introduced to Britten by W. H. Auden; Britten began it with settings of two poems for Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, and she sang them at the Queen’s Hall under Henry Wood. Later that year Britten added settings of seven more poems, connected by the refrain “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” [I alone have the key to this savage parade.] Wyss was the soloist for the first complete performance in 1940 in London, but by 1941 the work had become the property of Peter Pears, who sang the first American performance with the CBS Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Britten. Ian Bostridge has become a major performer of a lot of the music that Britten wrote for Pears. He delivered a performance on this concert with a good deal of confidence, even swagger, which is appropriate for this piece. This listener has never warmed up to Les Illumination, or, for that matter, to Bostridge as a performer of Britten’s music, and this performance didn’t change anything. The concert began with a brief fanfare, derived from his oratorio The Mask of Time, by Michael Tippett, which was followed by his Concerto for Double String Orchestra, his earliest work. Britten and Tippet were contemporaries and friends; when the first recording of the piece was made, during the Second World War, while Tippett was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Britten was the co-producer.
The idea of presenting Britten’s music along with that of his friends and contemporaries was a major component of the Proms Saturday Matinee concerts which were held at Cadogan Hall. The concert on August 10 (written about earlier), by Camerata Ireland and Alison Balsom, conducted by Barry Douglas, presented Young Apollo, Op. 16, and the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10, along with the Serenade, Op. 12 by Lennox Berkeley, Movement for Strings by Priaulx Rainier, and the First Piano Concerto of Shostakovich. The concert on August 24, presented by the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Paul Watkins, began with the Chancony in g minor by Purcell (a major interest of and influence on Britten) in Britten’s edition/arrangement for string orchestra, and also included a series of variations by Berkeley, Tippett, Arthur Oldham, Humphrey Searle, William Walton, and Britten himself, on the Elizabethan tune Sellinger’s Round which Britten organized for a performance at the Aldebrugh Festival in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (on this year’s Proms this was one of a number of works performed to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation). For this concert the BBC commissioned new variations by John Woolrich and Tansy Davies. The variations themselves are fairly inconsequential pieces, although each was brief; the new variations seem to be aiming for some kind of gravitas which the originals were not even aiming for. Each was longer than any of the originals and came off as being rather plodding and pretentious, and neither added anything to the original set, which wasn’t all that much to begin with.
Britten was connected with Lutoslaski by means of a performance of the latter’s Paroles tissées, which was commissioned for Peter Pears and the Aldebrugh Festival in 1965. Setting the poem “Quatre tapisseries pour le Chatelaine de Vergi” (Four Tapestries for the Chatelaine [lady of the manor] of Vergi) in French by Jean-François Chabrun, which described tapestries, but whose structure and content suggest that the poem itself is a sort of tapestry. Lutoslawski added yet another layer to this conceit by virtue of his setting, which features a large number of solo string parts which are given a certain amount of rhythmic freedom, woven together. The soloist in this performance was Ben Johnson. For the end of the concerto Johnson was joined by horn player Richard Watkins in Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings, Op. 31, one of his best known and most wonderful works. Usually a tenor in Britten’s pieces written for Pears sounds very much like Pears, who had a very individual and distinctive sound and manner. I have sometimes thought that this phenomenon was proof that Pears himself was a creation of Britten’s composition. Ben Johnson, without doing anything that seemed unidiomatic or out of place, did some things which didn’t just sound like Pears; his performance (as was Watkin’s) was beautiful, compelling, and sovereign.
On August 27, The Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the London Philharmonic, conducted by Andrew Davis, presented a semi-staged performance of Britten’s Billy Budd in the Albert Hall. The opera, which has a libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier was written in 1950; a revision in 1960 recast is from four to two acts. It is tight and fast moving dramatically, although the end of the work, which attempts to make Billy some kind of Christ figure in some kind of way, is both confusing and a little off putting (for me, anyway). The performance realized the dramatic trajectory of the work and was very powerful. All the singing was very compelling, especially that of Jacques Imbrailo, as Billy, Mark Padmore, as Captain Vere (in the part written for Pears, and sounding very much like Pears), Jeremy White, as Dansker, and, in an unsympathetic and sort of thankless role, Brindley Sherratt, as Claggart.
Along with Paroles tissées and the Piano Concerto, which were from later on in Lutoslawski’s career, his earlier years were represented in the slice of the Proms that I was around for by the Symphonic Variations of 1939, demonstrating the high level of his talent and training as a very young composer, and by the Concerto for Orchestra written between 1950 and 1954. Composed in the earlier days of the Communist government of Poland, after the official banning of his First Symphony, the Concerto for Orchestra reflects the officially sanctioned language, heavily folk influenced and somewhat in the manner of Bartok. It is an imposing and powerful piece with brilliant orchestration, and its performance by The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit, was equally brilliant and compelling. Their August 23 concert also included two works by Lutoslawski’s friend and associate, Andrzej Panufnik, both of which were written before Panufnik defected to the west in 1954. After an initial complete banning by the Nazis of all manifestations of Polish cultural life, including public concerts, when many famous Polish performers, including Lutoslawski and Panufnik, who had formed a piano duo, were forced into working in cafes and cabarets, in 1942 a few charity concerts were permitted. For one of these for which Panufnik had been engaged as conductor, he was requested to write an opening work. That work was his Tragic Overture. It is a aggressive and angry work, built on a four note motive which is obsessively and relentlessly repeated and manipulated, driving head long from its beginning to an angry ending, obliterating a lone little lyric tune along the way. The second work, Lullaby, was written after the Second World War. It is a sort of a nocturne, inspired by a moment the composer had on the Waterloo Bridge in London. It is a depiction of an image reflected and refracted by a nearby river, with three elements, described by Panufnik, as “a pusating rhythm of harps to correspond to the gentle, uninterrupted flow of the river; a groups of solo string instruments, some moving in quarter-tones, for the drifting clouds; and above, like the moon which was also looking down on Poland, the song of a Polish peasant, based almost entirely on the pentatonic scale and played by a succession of solo string instruments..so that the melodic line would be submerged and then emerge again from time to time.” Not only is the translation of the visual to the aural realized with almost uncanny accuracy and vividness, Lullaby is, possibly due to the simple, even banal, material on which that very sophisticated and complex realization is based, very touching. I hadn’t heard any of Panufnik’s music before this, but I’m not inclined to seek some of it out.