BBC SSO / Brabbins
City Halls, Glasgow
As Martyn Brabbins rightly observed during his interval thoughts on Benjamin Britten’s last opera Death in Venice, there is a disturbing undercurrent that haunts its pungent score. We weren’t about to hear the whole opera, but rather a masterfully crafted concert suite, prepared eight years after Britten’s death by the conductor and Britten collaborator Steuart Bedford.
It was the final piece in a brooding all-Britten programme broadcast live on Radio 3 by the BBC SSO, the common factor throughout being that anxious underswell described by Brabbins, whether in the sombre strains of Russian Funeral, the searing mystical delights of the song cycle Nocturne, the ghostly references of John Dowland cutting through the ruminative Lachrymae for viola and string orchestra, or the constant reminders within the Death in Venice score of the opera’s hovering fear – rumours of a cholera pandemic. How topical!
Russian Funeral, scored for brass only, is understandably powerful and morose, written in the run up to the Second World War when Britten’s anti-war sensibilities were fully wakening. But it’s not just about his pacifist ideals. Structured around a Russian proletarian song, it’s a paean to the victims of the 1905 Winter Palace insurrection, its lugubrious but hot-blooded sentiment roundly embraced by the SSO brass, underpinned by the menace of militaristic drums.
Britten’s final song cycle, Nocturne, took us to a dreamier world. These settings of Shelley, Tennyson, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare, among others, explore rich and varied images of sleep and darkness, from the hypnotic density of Shelley’s On a Poet’s Lips I Slept, the catchy “ting, ting, ting” of Middleton’s Midnight Bell, to the powerful contradictions in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43.
Tenor Mark Padmore’s performance hit the magic button, in one sense capturing that piercing objectivity we so associate with the work’s original exponent Peter Pears, but in another sense finding a range of expression fluid enough to amplify the music’s shifting moods and dramatic surprises.
He owed much, of course, to the supporting piquant flavourings of the SSO ensemble, notably the thrill of the duetting flute and clarinet in Keats’ Sleep and Poetry, the entrancing harp in Coleridge’s Encintured with a Twine of Leaves, and that gorgeous blanket of strings throughout – a defining, unifying presence.
Where Nocturne looks to English poetry, Lachrymae for solo viola and strings (Britten’s 1976 orchestration) turns to old English song for its inspiration. Almost like a reverse set of variations, John Dowland’s theme, on which it is based, emerges in full at the end rather than the beginning. It’s a transformative moment, and one that seemed especially profound as the inevitable resolution to a captivating solo performance by SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson. The subtle references to Dowland previously were like phantom apparitions, the full string complement equal in capturing such magical moments.
All of which found the perfect destination in the Death in Venice Suite. Bedford’s slick continuous distillation maintains the opera’s narrative flow, but equally it allows us to appreciate the score on its own merit. Yes, the gnawing nuances that reflect the ageing writer Aschenbach’s obsession with the boy Tadzio are intrinsic to Britten’s expressive language, and are hard to discard if you know the opera. Yet this steely, sinewy, often sublime performance illustrated, too, the composer’s own emotional struggles. Disturbing yes, but wonderfully enriching.
Image: Martyn Brabbins ©Ben Ealovega