About this Recording
8.557199 - BRITTEN: Serenade, Op. 31 / Nocturne, Op. 60 / Phaedra, Op. 93
English  German 

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976): Orchestral Song-Cycles • 2
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings • Nocturne • Phaedra

The medium of the orchestral song-cycle is one that much attracted Britten. His concept of an anthology of sometimes diverse texts, unified by a common literary or poetic theme was a favourite device to which he returned several times. The present recording features his two later and arguably best-known works in the genre, together with a major vocal work dating from the very last years of the composer’s life.

Britten’s return from his three-year sojourn in America in 1942 represented a homecoming that was more than purely geographical. As is well-known, it was his reading an article by E.M. Forster about the poet George Crabbe in an edition of The Listener that made Britten homesick for his native Suffolk and prompted his subsequent return to England with the idea for a new opera, Peter Grimes, uppermost in his mind. As if in preparation for the task ahead, Britten undertook the composition of a number of vocal and choral works including A Ceremony of Carols, the Hymn to St Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb and, perhaps most important of all, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31, composed during March and April 1943. In the summer of the previous year, Britten had become acquainted with the remarkable young hornplayer Dennis Brain (1921-1957) who during the war was playing in the R.A.F. Central Band, for which Britten was writing incidental music for a series of wartime radio documentaries. It was not long before Brain asked Britten for a work especially for him and the idea for the Serenade was born. The first performance took place on 15th October 1943 at the Wigmore Hall in London with Brain and Peter Pears as soloists and Walter Goehr conducting. In a letter to his friend Elizabeth Mayer, Britten characterized the Serenade as ‘not important stuff, but quite pleasant I think’, a surprisingly modest way of describing what is widely regarded to be one of the finest and most characteristic of all his works. The cycle is dedicated to Edward Sackville-West, a writer friend of Britten’s who had helped with the choice of texts.

The Serenade opens with a Prologue for solo horn played on the instrument’s natural harmonics (causing some notes to sound deliberately out-of-tune), evoking an atmosphere of ‘natural’, primeval innocence. This mood is sustained in the twilit landscape of Cotton’s Pastoral with its gently descending arpeggio figures in the voice and horn, and the more vigorous setting of Tennyson’s Nocturne, notable for its cadenza-like fanfare passages (‘Blow, bugle, blow’) with their highly characteristic chains of thirds. The relatively uncomplicated nature of these first two settings makes the contrast with the third, Blake’s Elegy, all the more effective: this is one of Britten’s most overt and explicit representations of, as Edward Sackville-West put it, ‘the sense of sin in the heart of man’. The quietly heaving syncopations in the strings and plodding double bass arpeggios are straight-forwardly diatonic but are disturbed by the chromatically meandering horn line which proceeds by way of falling semi-tones, often effecting a flattening from major to minor, intensified in the closing bars by the eerie use of hand-stopped glissandi. The following Dirge maintains the dark tone, the tenor’s obsessively repeated ground oblivious to the developing fugue in the strings which begins pianissimo, gradually building to a powerful climax (marked by the horn’s dramatic entry with the fugue subject), before retreating back into the shadows. The tension is dispelled by the following fleet-footed setting of Ben Jonson’s Hymn to Diana in which the strings play pizzicato throughout. The final song, Keats’s Sonnet, in which the horn is silent, is an Adagio of rare beauty which gains its highly distinctive sound from the juxtaposition of unrelated triads, a prime example of Britten’s genius for discovering fresh uses for the most basic musical elements. Finally the horn closes the cycle with the Epilogue, an exact repeat of the Prologue with which it began the work, but this time played offstage, the innocence of the opening now left far behind.

The Nocturne, Op. 60, composed in 1958 and first performed at that year’s Leeds Centenary Festival, is in many respects a successor to the Serenade. As with the earlier work, the texts have the theme of night, sleep and dreams in common, but there are some important differences: in contrast to the single obbligato horn employed in the Serenade, Britten here uses seven different solo instruments, each of which lends its own distinctive colour to each setting, and whereas the Serenade had consisted of a sequence of separate, selfcontained songs, however unified overall, the Nocturne is completely through-composed, connected by means of a recurring ritornello figure in the strings, its gently rocking motion no doubt meant to represent the breathing sleeper (this idea actually derives from a song originally intended for the Serenade, ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’, which was never used). The harmonic language too is less tonally stable and more ambiguous, making particular use of the juxtaposition of two keys a semi-tone apart, C and D flat. Britten dedicated the work to Alma Mahler, in doing so acknowledging the debt he himself owed to Gustav Mahler.

The strings alone accompany the lullaby-like first song, Shelley’s On a poet’s lips I slept, dominated by the sleeping motif mentioned above. This cross-fades into the second, Tennyson’s The Kraken, the great seamonster suggested by the wide-ranging popping and writhing of the solo bassoon. The harp is used to characterise Coleridge’s delicate moonlit reverie of the ‘lovely boy plucking fruits’, its pure, untroubled A major (Britten’s usual key for symbolizing innocence and beauty) only mildly disrupted in the final line, ‘Has he no friend, no loving mother near?’ The horn supplies onomatopoeic nocturnal sounds for Middleton’s ‘midnight bell’ with varied use of muting, hand-stopping and flutter-tongue. As in the Serenade, the two central settings focus on the more sinister aspects of night and darkness: the lines taken from Wordsworth’s The Prelude are coloured by the timpani, their ominous rumbling driving the music to an anguished climax which, after a rapid diminuendo, is followed by a setting of Wilfred Owen’s The Kind Ghosts (anticipating Britten’s use of this poet’s verse in the War Requiem), a funeral march featuring a plaintive lament from the cor anglais supported by the strings’ mournful pizzicato tread. In complete contrast, the setting of Keats’s Sleep and Poetry is the lightest setting in the work with an airy dialogue between flute and clarinet. This culminates in a return of the ritornello which in turn leads into the climactic final song, a richly expressive, highly Mahlerian setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43, ‘When most I wink’ in which all the instruments used hitherto are combined.

Phaedra Op. 93, Britten’s last major vocal work, was composed during the summer of 1975. In 1970, Britten had written the part of Kate Julian in the opera Owen Wingrave specifically with the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker in mind and had also conducted and recorded The Rape of Lucretia with her in the title-rôle. It was apparently her performance of Berlioz’s Nuits d’été at the 1975 Aldeburgh Festival, however, that inspired Britten to write this ‘dramatic cantata for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra’ especially for her voice. The work received its première on 16th June 1976 at Aldeburgh with Baker as soloist under the direction of Steuart Bedford.

The text is taken from Robert Lowell’s English verse translation of Racine’s Phèdre. On the day of her marriage to Theseus, Phaedra sees her husband’s son Hippolytus with whom she immediately becomes infatuated. When she is rejected by the youth, in guilt and shame she decides to end her life by poisoning. This subject of forbidden love is, of course, a favourite Britten theme and it resulted in one of the most passionate and emotionally involved of his later scores. Britten’s model was the Baroque solo cantata (even down to the use of cello and harpsichord for the recitative passages), but it is perhaps more helpful to think of Phaedra as an extended operatic scena. The work falls into five clearly defined sections. The luminous string textures of the Prologue, depicting the brilliant Athenian sunshine on Phaedra’s wedding day, are based on a theme of descending perfect fifths that will recur at important moments during the work. This is followed by a recitative in which Phaedra, at first determined to fight her obsession, realises that resistance is futile and abandons herself to her passion, the whirling string figuration of the agitated Presto that follows graphically representing her confused, frenzied state of mind. This is contrasted with a slower moving, statelier passage (marked ‘ironically’) based on the fifths from the opening, ‘Phaedra in all her madness stands before you’, one of the score’s most memorable moments. In the second recitative, Phaedra resolves to take her own life, the following Adagio portraying her death in sonorous string harmonies that increasingly acquire an air of stoic nobility. The main motives of the work are then fleetingly recapitulated before the work ends with a final reminder of the fifths, this time in ascending form, as if evaporating into thin air.

Lloyd Moore


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