I’ve been sold on the music of Benjamin Britten since a pilgrimage to his Aldeburgh Festival back in 2013, the centenary of his birth. I’ll remember fondly the performances there, especially the production Peter Grimes on the beach. Though I don’t always think he hit the mark, his music can be exceptional.
So, six years later we got an insightful little recital at the Royal Welsh on Britten’s birthday. Tenor Adrian Thompson and pianist Michael Pollock chose two song cycles that define the vocal repertoire of their time. Most will know Michelangelo as a sculptor, yet he also wrote some fine sonnets. Britten here chose a handful of them, set them to music and made the fine decision to keep them in the original Italian. Britten was well-known for writing for his life long lover, Peter Pears. This bleeds into performance even today, as Pears made a fine tenor who was always up to the challenge of what ever Benny would write for him.
Pears lives when Thompson sings. On this occasion his voice was broad and proudly executed. These loved up sonnets have some curious moments and inserting things going on with the piano as well. There is an intense quality to these settings, an unflinching musical passion which leaves you exhausted after all the sonnets have said their piece. These songs are acquired tastes, that has to be said. There is an over bearing throttle Britten puts into the voice, which some may struggle with upon first hearing.
In his Winter Words, the setting is now Thomas Hardy and take on a much more opaque and still vision. Thompson shone here and Pollock fascinating me on the keys. The haunting nature is perhaps best defined in, The Choirmaster’s Burial, a highlight from the set. Here Hardy writes about paying tribute to his teacher by making sure his favourite hymn is played at his graveside. Birdsong also appears in passages and there is a chilly air of the English countryside throughout these fleeting numbers. The fusion between both musicians here was immense and an encore of Down By the Sally Gardens was a wonderful way to wrap things up.
Britten and Pears would have thoroughly approved.
Next concert at Royal Welsh College is Barry Douglas playing Rachmaninov & Tchaikovsky on 24th November 2019, part of the Steinway International Piano Series.
Photo Credit: RWCMD Website