Benjamin Britten had few connections with the usual hotspots of British culture, but hearing him in Oxford is apt. "Oxford people don't conform", one elderly St Hilda's graduate once told me, "even when they try". A broad generalization, but with a grain of truth. Perhaps Britten might not have felt not too much out of place here. So it is was good to hear Britten's Canticles at St Hilda's, on the banks of the Cherwell, on the opening weekend of the Oxford Lieder Festival.
Britten didn't follow the usual Three Choirs and academia route. Gerald Finzi may have made more extensive studies of 17th century poets, and RVW transcribed folk songs in the field, but early British music, poetry and sensibilities inform Britten's music to an extraordinary degree. In this concert, the third of three marking the opening weekend of the Oxford Lieder Festival, Julius Drake set the 2nd and 4th Canticles with Britten's arrangements of songs by Henry Purcell.
I love countertenors. The voice type is ethereal, so exquisitely beautiful that it seems to come from a strange rarified atmosphere beyond this dimension, ideal for angels and unworldly spirits. In Canticle 2, "The Journey of the Magi", Britten shows how countertenors can extend the range of possibilty, the countertenor part soaring where baritone and tenor can't hope to reach. TS Eliot's text isn't sympathetic to song, with unwieldy syntax and words like "vegetation" and "dispensation", but Britten combines the voices so they extend the unison without breaking the line. The magi are marching toegether in a train, their progress as solemn as the tread of their camels. In the final verse, the steadiness gives way to a strange new consciousness: they don't really know what kind of Birth they've witnessed, and return to their kingdoms "no longer at ease".
There were three magi in the New Testament, but Britten could have written the third part for bass or for alto. but countertenor adds a kind if shimmering glow that brightens the palette. What if Britten had dared to write a part in the War Requiem for countertenor? What a different balance that would have made to the whole thing. I'm one of the very rare few who doesn't really get the War Requiem, but to me the female part doesn't stand up to the two male parts. Perhaps it's because I cannot think of the war as a western European conflict: Mother Russia should be the biggest part of all. But I digress......
William Towers was the countertenor here. He's one of my favourites because his voice is so naturally high, completely fluid and natural. Some popular countertenors push their voices up and sound forced and artificial. Towers sounds masculine, like Andreas Scholl does, and certainly his looks help, too. With his dark, brooding good looks, and tousled riot of curls, he looks like a Byronic hero, capable of great tragedy and wildness. If he didn't sing, he could be a fantastic actor. Or Goth rock star, flashing hints of dark mystery. Luckily for us, the present generation of English countertenors are all good, but Towers has stage presence. I heard him once in a semi-staged Death in Venice as the voice of Apollo. His voice filled the auditorium even before he walked in, and suddenly he materialized, sheathed in gleaming white.
Countertenors are interesting because they're not simply creatures of sweetness and light. When Towers sang Purcell's In the black, dismal dungeon of despair he evoked horror. "wracked with my fears.....with dreadful expectation of my doom". He created chilling despair by voice alone, sitting quietly on an ordinary chair, without props or gestures.
Towers was very well balanced by the baritone Nigel Cliffe. He's another singer who can act. Let the dreadful engines showcased his dramatic phrasing and colour, enhanced by particularly vivid playing by Julius Drake. What fun it must be to play the dark rumbling ferocity in this song! It made the music spring to life even if much of it was written 400 years ago.
After the modern sensibility of Canticle 4, with its non-commital lack of religious certainity, it was odd to return to Canticle 2, but perhaps that was Julius Drake's intention, to make us reconsider. Canticle 2 is perhaps the best known and best loved of all because it's a relatively straightforward story from the Bible. Abraham builds an altar to sacrifice his child but at the last moment God intervenes and tells him to kill a lamb instead. Traditionally, the story illustrates the idea of unquestioning obedience. and faith in the authority of God. But what if God hadn't changed his mind? And why does any God need the slaughter of an innocent lamb? Britten's text is archaically obstruse, as if to create a distance between the text and its meaning. For the meaning is more troubling than conventional religion might suggest. What does Isaac mean, in terms of Britten's innocents? Or for that matter where are Abraham's voices coming from?
A boy soprano could sing Isaac, and a bass might plausibly create Abraham the elderly patriarch, but tenor and countertenor are more equivocal, because the balance of power isn't so obvious.
William Tower's Isaac was intense, veering from terror to meek acceptance, while Daniel Norman's Abraham came over as a basically decent fellow, not one prone to hearing strange voices whispering "Kill!" But that's fair enough, for we know what the tenor voice signified for Britten. So what is he really saying in Canticle 2 ?
More on the Oxford Lieder Festival in the next ten days. This is how song should be experienced, in small, intimate settings with an audience that seriously listens. It's worth the trip to Oxford, especially for the weekend, and the Festival has deals with hotels. The Jacqueline du Pré Building is bigger than the Holywell Music Room, but you're still up close with the performers. Two of the concerts, (Holzmair's Winterreise and Joan Rodgers's Russian Songs) are being repeated at the Wigmore Hall in November, so if you go to both you can experience for yourself how ambiences can differ.
Tomorrow : Mahler Von der Jugend from Das Lied von der Erde, and its lotus imagery.