|Allan Clayton, courtesy Maestro Arts|
Mark-Anthony Turnage Refugee (for tenor and orchestra) with Allan Clayton, the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Gourlay, premiered last month now broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Five movements, four with texts - Emily Dickinson These Strangers (1864), Benjamin Zephaniah We Refugees (2000), WH Auden Refugee Blues (1939) and Brian Bilston Refugees (2016). Five vignettes (the fourth movement is orchestral) together forming a diverse collage. For refugees are everywhere - human history is shaped by mass population movements of one kind of other. Being a refugee is not normal but is the norm.
The first section (Dickinson) is brief - a single verse. Brief orchestral fanfare raises the curtains, so to speak, for the Benjamin Zephaniah poem, (full text here). "I come from a musical place where they shoot me for my song". Turnage's settings arealmost theatrical, for each verse is a drama encapsulating many tragedies. "Nobody’s here without a struggle, And why should we live in fear. Of the weather or the troubles? We all came here from somewhere.". Auden's Refugee Blues is more savage. Urban and urbane, showing that even in supposedly civilized societies, evil reigns. "Say this city has ten million souls,Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us" Since Brexit, Britain has changed. Now all that matters is The Will of the People, a slogan Auden would have known all about. Auden himself is attacked in some newspapers for being too arch and too intellectual. So much for his being one of the greatest poets of 20th century Britain. Auden's lines curl languidly, but each word drips poison : elegant subversion, way above the heads of Brownshirts and their one track minds. Turnage's setting reflects the bluesy ambiguity that gives the poem such power ; jazz musicians, cabaret artists, gays, Jews, blacks, leftists, non-conformists, the Weimar Auden knew so well. It's also natural Turnage territory, given his background. (Oddly enough the poem was also set by Elisabeth Lutyens). The fourth movement sets no text, but no words are needed. This is Turnage's own voice, a tone poem which says what words cannot say. Bristling with nervous energy, it's pugnacious and irrepressible. A mournful melody, with hollow percussion, introduces the final movement. The mood is desolate, Turnage's setting almost post-apocalytic. Woodwinds wail, string sounds hover like smoke. In Bilston's poem people object to outsiders ("scroungers, we need to see them for who they really are"), but he is not on that side. Nor is Turnage. "Oh, do not tell me they have no need of a hand", sings Clayton, his pitch taken up by a cor anglais, ringing pure and clear.
Oliver Knussen's legacy lives on: his influence on British music and musicians is profound. Knussen's Songs without Voices (1991/2) . Songs without voices? Their subtlety frees the listener who is freed creatively to "hear" in the imagination, becoming part of the creative process. For me, the quiet stillness of Fantastico (Winter’s Foil) suggests the pale light of winter and the way one's breath become visible in cold air. I visualize the long outward reaching lines in Maestoso (Prairie Sunset) translated into long, horizontal vistas. In the third song Leggerio : The First Dandelion , the stillness is shattering. In the final song, Adagio: Elegaic Arabesques, the cor anglais leads, delineating elegant patterns.well thought programming.
Britten was an outsider too, escaping the fascism sweeping Europe in his time : no-one really emigrates for fun. Fortunately he could return to his roots and destiny. As a child, Oliver Knussen discovered Britten's Nocturne (Op 60, 1958). Knussen must have been an unusually perceptive child, responding instinctively to musical undercurrents which many adults still can't comprehend. (the animal sounds probably helped). The scope is ambitious - eight very varied settings by Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare - put together with structural cohesion that's panoramic in scale though scored for only seven instruments and soloist. The ensemble is unobtrusive, commenting on and extending the vocal line. The voice part itself seems to reflect the sounds of an instrument, twisting and shape shifting, like an exotic oboe or clarinet, weaving and curling. The effect is like a seamless dialogue between human and non-human sounds, absolutely of the essence in texts that address strange, otherworldy concepts where things might not be what they seem to be.
"On a poet's lips I slept/Dreaming like a love-adept" is just the starting point as we enter this phantasmographic journey "Nor heed nor see, what things they be;But from these create he can Forms more real than living man, Nurseling of immortality!" - the word "nurseling" twisting and turning, very different from the cadence of normal speech. In the second song, we encounter the Kraken, a monster that sleeps in the ocean depths in "ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep" until summoned by the bassoon, which lumbers and coils like the mythical beast, aroused. As he rises to the surface, wind instruments evoke "bubbles". But the kraken dissolves as he reaches light,. the last word "Die" is clipped, strangled mid-note. The third song describes a young boy, alone beguiled by the night. The lines of the text curve, round and round : almost circular breathing for voice. The effect is claustrophobic.
"Midnight's bell goes ting, ting, ting, ting" a pause betweeen each"ting" so the ensemble murmurs around it. Dogs howl, but the nightingale sings "twit, twit, twit" and the nibbling mouse goes "peep, peep, peep, peep". Britten plays with this text to enhance the individuality of each creature's expressiveness. The “mew, mew, mew” of the cats is plausibly feline, yet also surreal. Indeed, it reflects the bizarre setting of the word"be-au-u-teous boy" in the previous song, suggesting that the doomed boy may be prey, to be hunted down. Here this had me thinking of the young Knussen, and of the composer grown up, but still fascinated by "Where the Wild Things Are".
The fifth, sixth and seventh songs form an internal group. Ominous drumrolls introduce "But that night, when on my bed I lay", where the voice projects, like a trumpet, as if the protagonist were trying to be brave. The ensemble rises around him,with hard staccato chords. The final cry "Weep no more!" may be cried in vain. In the setting of Wilfred Owen, "She sleeps on soft last breaths" the drumstrokes are muffled like a heartbeat, a clarinet calling in the background. The pace is steady,like breathing, but the voice and its wind counterpart curve long lines. Peace is an illusion. When the voice falls silent, the ensemble continues, murmuring without words, "The Kind Ghosts" of Britten's title.The Shakespeare sonnet "What is more gentle than a wind in summer" dances gaily, but what is Britten's intent? When the sleeper wakes, will the nightmare end ? The ensemble surges, menacingly, the voice ending on a very high note, held as silence falls. Britten's Nocturne is such a strange beast that interpretation is tricky. Peter Pears's instrument wasn't beautiful but he intuited Britten's possible meaning. The English tenor voice, which Britten understood so well, is unique in that it can express otherwise inexpressible undercurrents that lie hidden beneath the words and sounds. A most idiomatic performance from the Britten Sinfonia, Allan Clayton and Andrew Gourlay, capturing the claustrophobic inwardness that makes this masterpiece still so disturbing for some listeners.