Sunday, 10 November 2013

Barbican Britten Our Hunting Fathers Bostridge

The Barbican's Britten celebrations continued Friday with a concert by Ian Bostridge and the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Paul Daniel, featuring Britten's breakthrough masterpiece, Our Hunting Fathers. To this day the work remains strikingly advanced, with its strange stabbing rhythms, contradictory phrases and  quirky twists up and down the scale. Medieval dance becomes a  vehicle for modern inventiveness. At its premiere in Norwich in 1936 it must have seemed bizarre. To Britten's credit, it still is. Indeed, I'd say that Our Hunting Fathers is Britten in microcosm,  adapting ancient ideas to modern sensibilities. Even if the good burghers of Norfolk had appreciated the musical inventiveness, they might have been discomforted by the message.

"They are our past, and our future" the cycle begins. But what are "they", who we "cannot voluntarily move, but await the extraordinary compulsion of the deluge and the earthquake" ? We hear an incantation invoking the saints for the banishment of rats, who populate the earth in greater numbers than man.  Messalina weeps because her monkey lies dying. Then The Dance of Death (Hunting for Partridge) where the names of hunting falcons are recited. The text is early 17th century, but the effect is utterly modern. "Whurret ! Wanton, Sugar, Mistress, Sempster" each word clearly defined and separate. You can almost see the falcons take to the air, like a squadron of fighter planes, off on a mission to kill. The Spanish Civil War was the first major occasion when aeroplanes were used to bomb civilians, a point not lost on Britten and W H Auden. The Epilogue and Funeral March draws a connection between the killing of animals and cruelty to men. One class kills, another is condemned "to think no thought but ours, to hunger, to work illegally, and be anonymous".

For a far better insight into Britten's Our Hunting Fathers. please read Claire Seymour's detailed review in Opera Today. Although the work was originally written for soprano, I think it needs the stronger, more assertive voice of a tenor to bring out its darker,more dangerous nature. In 1936, Britten was only 23. Perhaps even he baulked at its disturbing implications. Bostridge's recording, with Daniel Harding and the Britten Sinfonia, dates from 1998. His voice has matured, and is much more impressive now, though he was under the weather on Friday. If  only he would record it again!

Britten's Young Apollo op 16 (1939) is almost as creative. The strings spring jauntily upbeat, with the suggestion of wild dance, with exotic undertones: Dervishes, perhaps? Then savage downward chords from the piano, establishing strange tensions. Apollo shines in the string harmonies. We are dazzled. For a while the orchestra and pianist Lara Melda frolic together playfully. Tiny repetitions on the piano suggest awe and wonder. Then the sun seems to hide behind clouds. The piano protests, but in a glorious final glow the music disappears. A miniature Death in Venice in less than 7 minutes.

More than most British composers, bar perhaps Ralph Vaughan Williams, Britten immersed himself in Elizabethan and Tudor music. yet he adapted this firm foundation in a unique way. At the Barbican, Paul Daniel (one of the best Britten conductors) led the Britten Sinfonia (somewhat misnamed as they don't do mainly Britten)  in Britten's arrangement of Henry Purcell's Chacony in G minor, and later Britten's Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was (1974). While looking backwards, Britten looks ahead.

Michael Tippett's Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli( (1953) was a timely reminder of what British music might have been without Britten. Britten's originality still discomforts some who would prefer him domesticated in the British mainstream, though he's often misunderstood by those who associate modern music with the European avant garde. Britten is interesting for me because he's too good to pigeonhole.  James Bowman once asked Britten if he'd like to be buried in Westminster Abbey. "No!" came the reply. "I don't want to spend Eternity next to Hubert Parry".

My review of Britten's War Requiem Royal Albert hall Bychkov is HERE.

More on Britten on my site here than anywhere else that's not solely Britten. Please explore and k3ep coming back

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