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Views And Reviews: Bare-Boned Britten

…If you’re familiar only with “big band” Britten, this programme will be a revelation. If you already know and love the spartan upholstery of “bare-boned” Britten, this programme will be a disappointment. Beautifully packaged and presented, with full if somewhat florid documentation, and poised performances that are too nice to deliver the devastation demanded by the music….

Paul Serotsky reviews a recording of works by Benjamin Britten.


Temporal Variations, for oboe and piano (1936); Six Metamorpheses after Ovid, for solo oboe (op. 49, 1951); (1) Phantasy Quartet, for oboe and string trio (op. 2, 1933); Two Insect Pieces, for oboe and piano (1935); Suite No. 1, for violoncello (op. 72, 1964);
Contrastes (Eric Speller – oboe, Ophelie Gaillard – violoncello, Olivier Peyrebrune – piano), (1) with Agathe Blondel (violin) and Stephanie-Marie Degand (viola)
Ambroisie AMB 9909, recorded at Studio Varga, Sion, March 2001

They say that you should never judge a book by its cover. But, they also say that you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Then again, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But, what’s this got to do with the price of eggs? Well, this CD is beautifully packaged. One of these cardboard jobs, a tasteful chocolate-brown with a tantalising peep-hole affording a tempting glimpse of the art-work to be fully revealed when you open it out. The CD nestles in a central tray with the booklet slotted on the right (so if you’re left-handed, be warned!). You also get poetry, and pictures on both the packaging and the disc, credits everywhere – and on the back there’s even a summary of the musical contents. The mind boggles – the next thing, there’ll be a little pink ribbon tied in a bow!

Not all, however, is sweetness and light. The CD seems to be sitting up very seductively, but (unless you have finger-nails like razor-blades) proves a real brute to extract – affording you the opportunity of a sense of achievement in the domestic environment similar to that of getting to a concert in the cold, wet and dark, when the car won’t start and the omnibuses are hibernating. The gorgeous illustration on the CD label does rather tend to obscure the words – as I write, I’m not sure that I’ve even found them all. The poetry turns out to be a single verse entitled “To Music”, penned in 1918 by Rainer Maria Rilke, repeated in four languages (surely, if this is meant – as I suspect – to be a “Euro-CD”, shouldn’t it be in about a dozen languages? Never mind – four is already three too many). You may like the poem, but I must confess that I, ever the euphemistically rough-hewn Yorkshireman, found it more than a nadge on the airy-fairy side.

Enclosed with the booklet, which was easy enough to extract (the main problem here is to actually stop it slipping out. Mind you, it’s less easy to get it back in!) I discovered an introduction to the record company, in the same four parallel languages. Perusing it, I groaned inwardly: “Ambroisie is a new record label which aims to use the sensual pleasure of sound to bring alive the desire for eternity, the traces of ambrosia, that we all carry inside us.” It burbled on, basically telling us (I think) that their CDs are a cut above the common, commercial rabble, presenting utterly fresh views of music by “putting the musician back at the centre of attention” – basically, the same idea as the internet-based label Artist-Led. The reference to “the appearance of new media . . . rocking the record industry”, however, did rather give the game away.

The booklet itself is crammed – largely on account of the same text being presented (again) in three languages too many. Why do record companies in general do that? Don’t they realise it unnecessarily depletes the rain forests? I wouldn’t have minded so much, were it not that the introduction, two extracts from “Le Principe de Delicatesse” by Michel Onfray, read like one of those arty-farty French films where the characters explore their own navels at interminable length, in impenetrably profound dialogue, and to little or no consequence. What on Earth is meant by such as “In the logic of the elements, Britten would have been Water (certainly not Fire or Earth), if he had not been Air”? I’m blowed if I know (which presumably makes me “Air”) – in my world, we’ve got over a hundred elements, and none of them are as quoted. Do you think this bloke’s also a member of the Flat Earth Society?

Then – joie de joies! – things took a distinct turn for the better in Michel Fleury’s discussion of the music. The language remains, albeit now eponymously (or thereabouts), “flowery”, but the half of it of which I could make head or tail actually provided useful information – ’ecky thump! The only real problem is that Fleury is prone to prescription. That’s alright in itself and in the right place, but bearing in mind that a CD note is likely to be read by some with no prior knowledge, a writer needs to be careful. For example, of the first of the Two Insect Pieces, he says, “Insect jumps, twisting and abrupt veering: one is amazed at the realism of the portrait.” Well, Britten’s title notwithstanding, the image that I got was of children playing hide and seek, so that makes me one who is not amazed at the realism of the portrait. No skin off my nose, but “beginners”, unaware that these things are not absolute, might be a mite discouraged if the prescribed image didn’t present itself to their mind’s eyes. “Read with caution” would seem to be the watch-phrase. Detailed profiles of the five young players are also provided, thankfully in plain English (oh – and French, and German, AND Spanish).

If I seem to have rather rabbited on about what is, when all’s said and done, only the packaging, I apologise – but with such elaborate production I felt fairly obliged to reciprocate in kind! OK then, to the music. I must confess that, being a sucker for colourful orchestration, works like the Frank Bridge Variations, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Sinfonia da Requiem, and especially the astonishing (and astonishingly neglected) ballet music for The Prince of the Pagodas (to name but the four that most immediately spring to my mind) have all too easily blinded me to the more intimate side of Britten’s output. Almost paradoxically, the only work on this disc of which I have any prior knowledge is the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, which is for a splendidly isolated oboe!

The disc includes three early works, one from the zenith of his creativity, and one late work. Although they are described in chronological order, only the last occupies a corresponding place in the disc, which can be a bit aggravating if you’re listening to the lot in one gulp (and 77 minutes makes for a creditably generous gulp). However, as the twiddly bits on a CD player are designed specifically to compensate for the unfathomable capriciousness of CD producers, I was able to do a quick spot of re-ordering, whilst pondering on how quickly we take for granted what was once considered the height of “high-tech.” luxury – though in my opinion the effect is nothing like as pronounced as the plummet in status, from exclusive executive plaything to ubiquitous pollutant, of the mobile ‘phone.

It gave me quite a jolt: here was Britten flayed to the bone, stripped of all the comfortable upholstery to which I’d become accustomed. The effect was strikingly similar to my early experience of Bartok – having started in the plush velour of the Concerto for Orchestra, Dance Suite, and Miraculous Mandarin (parallels with Prince of the Pagodas, perhaps?), I was stunned when I encountered the raw nerve-endings of the six String Quartets. Now, more years down the line than I care to count, here we go again! All those little peculiarities that define “Benjamin Britten” – the terse phrases, motives that are all elbows, nervous trills and melismatic musings – became the wood exposed by removal of the trees.

Listening to the earliest work, the Phantasy Quartet, which is also (comparatively speaking) the most densely populated in instrumental terms, there were parts where I couldn’t help but recall the Stravinsky of The Soldier’s Tale, or the Ravel of the String Quartet. Maybe you’ll find different echoes of the composer’s recent past – probably, and not unreasonably, they all add up to partially assimilated influences. In and amongst marvelling at Britten’s enchanting use of instrumental colour – especially the way he complements and contrasts the oboe and the strings – you find that these teasing little similitudes make the music all the more spell-binding.

The shadow of Britten’s senior, Bela Bartok, not surprisingly looms large in the Two Insect Pieces, in which the string trio is replaced by the percussive piano, calcifying those bones and to some extent crystallising Britten’s maturing style. In the first, the hip-hopping quality of the pecked two-note phrases and the oboe’s wary held notes at the ends of the “sentences” effectively mimic the cavortings of the purported “Grasshopper”. However, I’m not so sure about “The Wasp”; although there are some fairly savage Bartokian rhythmic eruptions from the piano, the oboe simply sounds too nice to conjure the memory of any wasp that I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. In this movement, I would have expected the oboist to have dripped vitriol into his reed and made some really nasty sounds – in the right hands (and even more so in the wrong hands!) the instrument is more than capable of producing them, and Britten certainly provided opportunities a-plenty!

Speaking of the Temporal Variations of 1936, Fleury suggests that the “enigmatic title” might relate to Britten’s being “intensely receptive to the climate of anguish created by international tensions”. Inasmuch as “temporal” refers to things characteristic of Life on Earth and the variations run a minor gamut of pungent emotions, and in view of movement titles like “Oration”, “Commination” and “Chorale”, I’d go along with that. But, the word also relates to things which exist only briefly, and these variations are all pretty epigrammatic. Then again, it can refer to preoccupation with practical (as opposed to spiritual) matters, which jibes well with others of the titles: “March”, “Exercises”, “Waltz”, “Polka”. Perhaps it’s not so much enigmatic as (if you’ll pardon my French) an entendre multiple. Whatever, the titles of the movements all imply distinctive characters which are projected with considerable distinction by the players. So what if Britten’s cautionary non troppo lento has perhaps been overlooked in the final Resolution? The portentious obsession of the oboe’s incessant repetition of the same “resolution” makes a pretty seductive carrot, and really it’s just pettifogging to complain, particularly when set against (say) the bright and brittle jollity of the March, or the elastically-observed allegretto rubato of the Waltz.

In relation to the Six Metamorphoses, Fleury makes a telling point all the more telling by not mincing his words: “. . . one of the most difficult genres [for all concerned]: that of monody . . . here the composer works without a safety net, for he must hold the listener’s attention without the devices offered by polyphony and harmony.” The involuntary image of the player precariously poised on a tightrope is both immediate and apposite – and the pose must be held for nearly 14 minutes! With music this concentrated, that’s a tough enough proposition, but as I listened a problem emerged: either Fleury in his commentary is overstating the case, or Speller in his performance is understating it. Whichever, the two seem a bit short on common ground. By adopting a general tone of “classical coolness”, as in The Wasp the oboe simply sounds too refined for what are supposed to be the more rugged, hair-raising movements like Phaeton or Bacchus, and seems to lack the dynamic daring “to boldly go” for the alternation of forte and piano required in Narcissus, for fear his tone (heaven forbid!) might suffer. It all sounds very civilised, but is it what Britten was after, especially when writing a quarter of an hour’s music for that “ill wind instrument that nobody blows good”?

That leaves the first ’Cello Suite. That this is a product of Britten’s artistic (and alcoholic) empathy with Rostropovich, and a form inviting comparison with J. S. Bach, is elaborated with great artfulness by M. Fleury who concludes (I think) that the collaborators deliberately set out to emulate JSB, and at the same time use the tactile intimacy of the medium to share their common experience of “the tragedy of the human condition”. So, pretty brow-furrowing stuff, then? Well, yes – particularly in the Cantos that punctuate the variational structure, where the shadow of the third party of a loose triumvirate, Shostakovich, looms large – Britten, it would appear, was paying tribute to more than JSB! In fact, the frequently anguished intensity makes you wonder just what they chatted about at those Bacchic Celebrations. I was going to say that, generally, Gaillard seems far more prepared to let rip and take a few risks with her ’cello than does Speller with his oboe. When it comes down to it, she does, but then whilst driving on a solemn mission the other day I heard something on the car radio that brought me up short: Rostropovich’s own recording of this music. By comparison, it sounded terrible – in both senses of the word: nowhere near as sweetly articulated, and trouser-staining in its visceral intensity. Gaillard does nothing wrong: she simply does not do enough.

The recording is very good, full, clear, nicely rounded and set to the fore of a pleasantly open acoustic. But be warned, particularly if you’re a headphone listener: the recording engineers, presumably in collusion with the performers, have not maintained a consistent balance. As the record proceeds from work to work, from one grouping of instruments to another, it’s as if you are also on the move, ever chasing that elusive best vantage point from which to listen. I can see what they’re aiming for, but honestly I prefer to stay in the one seat for the duration of the concert, thankyou very much! This adjustable perspective has a further drawback. Broadly speaking, they’ve set the larger ensembles further back on the sound-stage. These are fine, but when you come to the pieces for unaccompanied soli, you find yourself a bit too close for comfort – the old “Segovia Principal” kicks in.

To sum up, these are fine, accomplished renditions, proficient and beautifully articulated, a joy to hear, and all-in-all very refined and attractive-sounding at first acquaintance. But therein also lies the down-side – as you become more familiar they begin to seem too refined: there’s a characteristically Gallic suavity that doesn’t penetrate to the core of Britten’s often nerve-jangling music. Just listen to Gaillard and then to Rostropovich in the ’Cello Suite, and you’ll immediately get the point (if you buy this record, then avoid the Rostropovich recording! And, probably, vice versa). I’ve a feeling that, after all that I’ve said, Fleury’s flowery notes are actually much more in tune with the music than are the performances. To a degree, what the Contrastes ensemble fails to do is “what it says on the tin”. Coming full circle, this turns out to be one book that I could have judged by its cover.


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