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BRITTEN: Serenade, Op. 31 / Nocturne, Op. 60 / Phaedra, Op. 93


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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Orchestral Song-Cycles 2


Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings Nocturne Phaedra


The medium of the orchestral song-cycle is one thatmuch attracted Britten. His concept of an anthology ofsometimes diverse texts, unified by a common literaryor poetic theme was a favourite device to which hereturned several times. The present recording featureshis two later and arguably best-known works in thegenre, together with a major vocal work dating fromthe very last years of the composer's life.

Britten's return from his three-year sojourn inAmerica in 1942 represented a homecoming that wasmore than purely geographical. As is well-known, itwas his reading an article by E.M. Forster about thepoet George Crabbe in an edition of The Listener thatmade Britten homesick for his native Suffolk andprompted his subsequent return to England with theidea for a new opera, Peter Grimes, uppermost in hismind. As if in preparation for the task ahead, Brittenundertook the composition of a number of vocal andchoral works including A Ceremony of Carols, theHymn to St Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb and, perhapsmost important of all, the Serenade for tenor, horn andstrings, Op. 31, composed during March and April1943. In the summer of the previous year, Britten hadbecome acquainted with the remarkable young hornplayerDennis Brain (1921-1957) who during the warwas playing in the R.A.F. Central Band, for whichBritten was writing incidental music for a series ofwartime radio documentaries. It was not long beforeBrain asked Britten for a work especially for him andthe idea for the Serenade was born. The firstperformance took place on 15th October 1943 at theWigmore Hall in London with Brain and Peter Pears assoloists and Walter Goehr conducting. In a letter to hisfriend Elizabeth Mayer, Britten characterized theSerenade as 'not important stuff, but quite pleasant Ithink', a surprisingly modest way of describing what iswidely regarded to be one of the finest and mostcharacteristic of all his works. The cycle is dedicated toEdward Sackville-West, a writer friend of Britten'swho had helped with the choice of texts.

The Serenade opens with a Prologue for solo hornplayed on the instrument's natural harmonics (causingsome notes to sound deliberately out-of-tune), evokingan atmosphere of 'natural', primeval innocence. Thismood is sustained in the twilit landscape of Cotton'sPastoral with its gently descending arpeggio figures inthe voice and horn, and the more vigorous setting ofTennyson's Nocturne, notable for its cadenza-likefanfare passages ('Blow, bugle, blow') with theirhighly characteristic chains of thirds. The relativelyuncomplicated nature of these first two settings makesthe contrast with the third, Blake's Elegy, all the moreeffective: this is one of Britten's most overt andexplicit representations of, as Edward Sackville-Westput it, 'the sense of sin in the heart of man'. The quietlyheaving syncopations in the strings and ploddingdouble bass arpeggios are straight-forwardly diatonicbut are disturbed by the chromatically meandering hornline which proceeds by way of falling semi-tones, ofteneffecting a flattening from major to minor, intensifiedin the closing bars by the eerie use of hand-stoppedglissandi. The following Dirge maintains the dark tone,the tenor's obsessively repeated ground oblivious tothe developing fugue in the strings which beginspianissimo, gradually building to a powerful climax(marked by the horn's dramatic entry with the fuguesubject), before retreating back into the shadows. Thetension is dispelled by the following fleet-footedsetting of Ben Jonson's Hymn to Diana in which thestrings play pizzicato throughout. The final song,Keats's Sonnet, in which the horn is silent, is anAdagio of rare beauty which gains its highly distinctivesound from the juxtaposition of unrelated triads, aprime example of Britten's genius for discoveringfresh uses for the most basic musical elements. Finallythe horn closes the cycle with the Epilogue, an exactrepeat of the Prologue with which it began the work,but this time played offstage, the innocence of theopening now left far behind.

The Nocturne, Op. 60, composed in 1958 and firstperformed at that year's Leeds Centenary Festival, is inmany respects a successor to the Serenade. As with theearlier work, the texts have the theme of night, sleepand dreams in common, but there are some importantdifferences: in contrast to the single obbligato hornemployed in the Serenade, Britten here uses sevendifferent solo instruments, each of which lends its owndistinctive colour to each setting, and whereas theSerenade had consisted of a sequence of separate, selfcontainedsongs, however unified overall, the Nocturneis completely through-composed, connected by meansof a recurring ritornello figure in the strings, its gentlyrocking motion no doubt meant to represent thebreathing sleeper (this idea actually derives from asong originally intended for the Serenade, 'Now sleepsthe crimson petal', which was never used). Theharmonic language too is less tonally stable and moreambiguous, making particular use of the juxtapositionof two keys a semi-tone apart, C and D flat. Brittendedicated the work to Alma Mahler, in doing soacknowledging the debt he himself owed to GustavMahler.

The strings alone accompany the lullaby-like firstsong, Shelley's On a poet's lips I slept, dominated bythe sleeping motif mentioned above. This cross-fadesinto the second, Tennyson's The Kraken, the great seamonstersuggested by the wide-ranging popping andwrithing of the solo bassoon. The harp is used tocharacterise Coleridge's delicate moonlit reverie of the'lovely boy plucking fruits', its pure, untroubled Amajor (Britten's usual key for symbolizing innocenceand beauty) only mildly disrupted in the final line,'Has he no friend, no loving mother near?' The hornsupplies onomatopoeic nocturnal sounds forMiddleton's 'midnight bell' with varied use of muting,hand-stopping and flutter-tongue. As in the Serenade,the two central settings focus on the more sinisteraspects of night and darkness: the lines taken fromWordsworth's The Prelude are coloured by thetimpani, their ominous rumbling driving the music toan anguished climax which, after a rapid diminuendo,is followed by a setting of Wilfred Owen's The KindGhosts (anticipating Britten's use of this poet's versein the War Requiem), a funeral march featuring aplaintive lament from the cor anglais supported by thestrings' mournful pizzicato tread. In complete contrast,the setting of Keats's Sleep and Poetry is the lightestsetting in the work with an airy dialogue between fluteand clarinet. This culminates in a return of theritornello which in turn leads into the climactic finalsong, a richly expressive, highly Mahlerian setting ofShakespeare's Sonnet 43, 'When most I wink' in whichall the instruments used hitherto are combined.

Phaedra Op. 93, Britten's last major vocal work,was composed during the summer of 1975. In 1970,Britten had written the part of Kate Julian in the operaOwen Wingrave specifically with the mezzo-sopranoJanet Baker in mind and had also conducted andrecorded The Rape of Lucretia with her in the title-r??le.

It was apparently her performance of Berlioz's Nuitsd'ete at the 1975 Aldeburgh Festival, however, thatinspired Britten to write this 'dramatic cantata formezzo-soprano and small orchestra' especially for hervoice. The work received its premi?¿re on 16th June1976 at Aldeburgh with Baker as soloist under thedirection of Steuart Bedford.

The text is taken from Robert Lowell's Englishverse translation of Racine's Ph?¿dre. On the day of hermarriage to Theseus, Phaedra sees her husband's sonHippolytus with whom she immediately becomesinfatuated. When she is rejected by the youth, in guiltand shame she decides to end her life by poisoning.

This subject of forbi
Facts
Item number 8557199
Barcode 747313219926
Release date 10/01/2004
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Performers
Artists Langridge, Philip
Murray, Ann
Lloyd, Frank
Composers Britten, Benjamin
Conductors Bedford, Steuart
Orchestras English Chamber Orchestra
Sinfonia, Northern
Producers West, John H.
Disc: 1
Phaedra, Op. 93
1 Prologue
2 Pastoral
3 Nocturne
4 Elegy
5 Dirge
6 Hymn
7 Sonnet
8 Epilogue (off stage)
9 On a poet's lips I slept
10 Below the thunders of the upper deep
11 Encintured with a twine of leaves
12 Midnight's bell goes ting, ting, ting, ting
13 But that night when on my bed I lay
14 She sleeps on soft, last breaths; but no ghost loo
15 What is more gentle than a wind in summer?
16 When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see
17 Prologue - In May, in brilliant Athens
18 My lost and dazzled eyes
19 Venus resigned her altar to my new Lord
20 Phaedra in all her madness stands before you
21 The wife of Theseus loves Hippolytus
22 Oh Gods of wrath
23 Death to the unhappy's no catastrophe
24 My time's too short, your highness
25 Chills already dart along my boiling veins
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