Britten birthday centenary, Wigmore Hall, London

Having shot out of the blocks ahead of the pack, Wigmore Hall is making the most of its advantage. If half the events marking Benjamin Britten’s centenary over the forthcoming year are as inspiring as the Wigmore’s festival of his chamber music and songs, the celebrations will have been well worth all the effort that has gone into the planning.

The song cycles, in particular, are central to Britten’s output. It is easy for anybody who is half familiar with his music to assume that all are to English texts and were written for his partner, Peter Pears, but that is far from the case. In this programme two of the four cycles set poetry in other languages and three were composed for other distinguished singers.

It is the sheer range of words and music that makes such an impression when the cycles are sung in succession. This recital opened with On this Island sung with lovely, warm tone, but mushy enunciation by soprano Elizabeth Watts. W. H. Auden’s poems, so verbally acute, deserve more attention. Blake’s poetry was certainly accorded that when Gerald Finley came on afterwards to sing the baritone cycle, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. Long thought to be one of the less appealing of Britten’s vocal works, this cycle has taken on a new lease of life since Finley started singing it with his beautiful tone and sympathetic delivery, though Julius Drake’s accompaniment, such an asset on their recording together, sounded over-pedalled here.

It was at the Wigmore Hall back in 1943 that Britten and Pears gave the premiere of Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. Seventy years on, the tenor was young Allan Clayton, marvellously free and ringing on top notes, though he is inclined to over-indulge the soft croon of his head voice. Malcolm Martineau took over as pianist in the second half, offering well-defined accompaniments to both Clayton and Joan Rodgers, who sang Britten’s Russian cycle, The Poet’s Echo, to words by Pushkin. Her evocative singing conjured gentler pictures than the cycle’s original singer, the formidable Galina Vishnevskaya. As a bonus, the evening ended with all four singers returning for a selection of Britten’s folk song arrangements – some rarities, much artistry, great enjoyment.

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