Britten At Home & In A CabaretWednesday, December 11, 2013
I first heard it from my mother when I was 20, “The English have not had a good composer since Henry Purcell, 1659(?)- 1695."
In the early 70s I bought as many Angel recordings of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams as I could find in Mexico City. My favourite was his Symphony Number 2, A London Symphony. I could imagine the bustling Piccadilly traffic when I listened to it. I also enjoyed his seventh, Sinfonia Antartica. I would freeze as I listened to it. The Angel recording notes mentioned that one of the “instruments” was a wind machine!
It wasn’t until the middle 80s that I met cameraman Osmond Borradaile in West Vancouver who had worked (and travelled to the Antarctic) on the Charles Frend 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic in which the music featured Vaughan Williams’s music.
Like many of us who had decent stereo systems in those early 70s another record to listen and to enjoy was Gustav Holst’s The Planets in what was then the definitive recording by Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra.
It was my Yorkshire-born friend Andrew Taylor who through his father Colin told me about another English composer I knew nothing about, Michael Tippett. At the time records by Benjamin Britten were hard to find in Mexico City. And in the middle 80s I could hear the music of Elgar while riding an English train.
My mother, in retrospect can be forgiven by her damning statement on British composers because in her time there were few available recordings.
My first real introduction to Benjamin Britten was a 1995 Vancouver Opera production of Peter Grimes with Ben Heppner. I have also enjoyed Britten’s Billy Budd in CDs.
Now I can affirm that my knowledge of Benjamin Britten has been enhanced thanks to the Microcosmos String Quartet and a lovely soprano, Alexandra Hill. This knowledge would make my friend, the very English David Lemon smile. After all it was some yars ago that I repeated my mother's statement to him and he frowned.
|Alexandra Hill - Alex W-H|
The Microcosmos String Quartet is made up of Marc Destrubé and Andrea Siradze on violins, Tawnya Popoff on viola and Rebecca Wenham on cello. This wonderful Vancouver-based quartet has decided to play the music that they feel passionate about which paradoxically gets little notice these days. They are particularly interested in performing the challenging (for the performers and perhaps for listeners, too!) the six quartets of Bela Bartok. They perform these pieces in the intimacy of home concerts in which the venues are spread throughout the Lower Mainland.
If you are lucky to be on their e-mail list (and I am!) you get advance notice on these concerts which because they are in homes have limited seating capacity. A reasonable concert ticket usually includes fine drink and cakes which I have enjoyed in very close proximity to the quartet.
To sweeten the program, the quartet has been celebrating Benjamin Britten’s birth this year by also performing his three quartets.
On Wednesday night, the Microcosmos String Quartet exclusively played Britten’s second and third quartet in a very interesting home in West Hastings that had acoustics so good that I was almost blasted from my front row seat.
It was interesting to notice the difference in complexity (even this rank musical amateur could discern it) between two quartets separated by 30 years. That Number 3 Quartet had a special significance for me because it reminded me of my friend (he died four years ago) architect Abraham Rogatnick who had a particular love for Venice. The last movement of Britten’s quartet is about his staying in the city on the year that he ultimately died.
Through pre-concert chats, courtesy of Destrubé I can tell you that Britten loved rice and tapioca pudding and liked to take cold baths in the morning or to skinny dip on the freezing British seaside. I can tell you that he directed some of his work here in Vancouver for the CBC Vancouver Orchestra and that he played the piano in a home in West Vancouver where one of the Microcosmos Quartet’s concerts was held.
From my friend soprano Alexandra Hill at a concert last week, December 5 at the Silk Purse in West Vancouver I heard for the first time Britten’s Cabaret Songs (1939). Because Britten was gay the content of the lyrics by his friend and poet W. H. Auden were deemed questionable by the society of the time so these songs were originally performed by a woman. And of course, again in 2013, in West Vancouver by another woman!
These songs had, for me the influence of George Gershwin and Kurt Weill. They had a real jazzy tone to them and of course the lyrics were full of humor that was punctuated at a point by Hill who, with a wooden whistle mimicked the train of the fourth song, Calypso.
In both concerts I can add that there is an additional delight, obvious to some that they are warm and intimate. But there is more.
When you sit front row at a Microcosmos String Quartet performance or sit near soprano Hill and pianist Annabelle Paetsch the sound is not like an MP3 file or a surround sound kind of thing. It does not sound tinny as the sound from my PC’s speakers or coldish (as some assert) from a good CD. This is live music. Live music at close proximity is directional.
That means that when you look at, let’s say, Destrubé playing his violin on the left you can hear the instrument. But my peripheral vision tells me and my ears confirm the exact location of the sound emanating from Siradze’s violin, Popoff’s cello centre and Wenham’s viola on my right.
This aural directionality is a superb feeling and I feel lucky at the privilege of being witness to it. And best of all I am feeling as passionate about Britten as the Microcosmos String Quartet and Alexandra Hill. Some might say that the music of the 20th century is not always accessible. When you see it performed and hear it performed in real time, accessibility is instant.