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Britten – London City Recital Series

Britten – On this island
Debussy – En Sourdine;   Fantoches
Duparc – L'invitation au voyage; Chanson Triste
Poulenc – Deux Poemes de Louis Aragon
Head – Love's Lament;   Ships of Arcady
Warlock – Rest, Sweet Nymphs
Dring – It was a lover and his lass

Jaimee Marshall – soprano / Charlotte Forrest - piano & Series Artistic Director (pictured)

St Olave's Church 4 July 2007

Words, rhythm and above all contrast – those are the key elements in Benjamin Britten's tricky early song cycle – and all three were handled very deftly in this keynote opening to the first concert in a series presented by graduates of GSMD. The quirkiness of Auden's poems reflects the unsettled mood in a country still recovering from one war and poised on the brink of a second.

These dual themes of works influenced by the shadow of war, and of contrast were developed in a very cleverly thought out programme drawing on songs from both sides of the English Channel .

Next the came turn of the French. From Debussy an evening romance contrasted with his caricature of puppets in mischievous mood, Duparc switching from the optimism of an anticipated journey to the depths of despair, and Poulenc's contrast between slow marching crowds fleeing from an approaching enemy and his cynical patter song of the street.


The last group of songs explored lesser known English composers. Two very evocative songs from Michael Head, one from Peter Warlock, and to finish Madeleine Dring's jaunty setting of It was a lover and his lass, to send us humming on our way.


Jaimee Marshall, who has a pleasant distinctive soprano, sang with confidence throughout, but it was noticeable that her voice opened up to a much wider range of colour for the two songs concerning the sea. Charlotte Forrest demonstrated the skill and musicality that makes her very much a pianist to watch out for. Together they presented the programme with informal ease, and I look forward to the remainder of the series.


Britten – Orpheus Brittanicus


Mendelssohn – Fruhlingslied; Das erste Vellchen; Winterlied; Neue Liebe; Wanderlied; Nachtlied

Debussy – Ariettes Oubliees

Moeran – Kitty, I am in Love with You

Mac an Ultaigh – Callin na Grualge Doinne

Hughes – I know my love

Martin – The Fiddler of Dooney

Daire Halpin – soprano / Charlotte Forrest - piano

9 July 2007 – St Anne & St Agnes, Gresham St, EC2

The second recital of the series found us in Wren's small but near perfect Church of St Agnes and St Anne in Gresham Street where we to concentrate on composers whose works were early influences in Britten's musical development, and appropriately starting with Britten's adaptations of Purcell's works. Classically English , delivered in Daire Halpin's pure but rich voice, with words all distinctly in place.


Next Mendelssohn, more famed for his songs without words, but who nonetheless produced a good output of lieder. Ostensibly drawing room pieces and outwardly mild mannered, but with plenty of traps for the unwary, all of which were neatly avoided this evening.


A change to more impressionist style followed after the interval and Debussy. Both pianist and singer caught the languorous mood perfectly, offsetting the colour in the vocal line.


A versatile young singer, In the final group Daire reminded us that Irish is a language uniquely suited to song, with a traditional lament. Not surprisingly she specialises in her native folk songs, and is one of the artists on RTE's highly recommended CD anthology of Joyce Songs (CD101).


Britten – Winter Words


Schubert – Frulingsglaube; Ganymed

Finzi – Fear no more the heat of the sun; It was a lover and his lass

Vaughan Williams – Linden Lea; Silent Noon

Butterworth – On the Idle Hill of Summer

Faure – Automne; En priere

Britten – Winter Words


Andrew O'Brien – tenor / Jonathan Sells - baritone / Charlotte Forrest - piano

11 July 2007 – St Olave's Church, London EC3


The English countryside was at the heart of the third concert in this series.


The poems of Thomas Hardy, whose unique gift for describing the landscape and closer rural community where every detail is observed and commented on, were the inspiration for Britten's Winter Words.


Lyric tenor Andrew O'Brien gave as fine a performance of this cycle as one could hope to hear, pinpointing the contrasting moods of each poem, [and Charlotte Forrest, organiser of these concerts, characterised the piano part as well as we had ever heard it done, not excluding by the composer - strange to recall that in earlier years it was widely averred that no-one could be expected to follow Pears & Britten in the song cycles they premiered together! (Editor)] .


As a prelude, baritone Jonathan Sells contributed a well chosen group of songs by Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Finzi. With an easy manner he exactly conveyed the sense of nostalgia implicit in these pieces, harking back to those happy and unclouded times before World War I.


The programme was balanced with two of Schubert's most beguiling settings from Andrew O'Brien, and Fauré, in introspective mood, from Jonathan Sells.

Britten – Canticles

– Canticle I:   My beloved is mine;  
Canticle IV:   The Journey of the Magi;  
Canticle II:  Abraham & Isaac

Warlock – Captain Stratton's Fancy
Ireland – Sea Fever;   Santa Chiara
Arr Vignoles – The Mermaid

Jake Arditti – counter-tenor / John Bacon – tenor / Nicholas Morris - baritone / Charlotte Forrest - piano

17 July 2007 – St Anne & St Agnes, London EC2


By the time of this, the final concert in the series, word seemed to have got around that this was something not to be missed; a good sized audience had gathered in anticipation, and we were amply rewarded.

Canticle I (to words of Francis Quarles in memory of Dick Sheppard) is of course one of the pieces that Britten wrote for Peter Pears and himself to perform together. John Bacon has a voice with the same incisive quality of high notes.   His was a deeply thoughtful interpretation, catching the fluctuating moods of the poem very well.  
[I attended its auspicious 1947 world premiere at the Dick Sheppard Memorial Concert at Friends House in Euston - Editor.]

The Journey of the Magi is arguably at once the most difficult and most satisfying of Britten's songs.   The piano carries the sentiment, most effectively with Charlotte Forrest's carefully nuanced playing, and the three voices pass around T S Eliot's complex word pictures, so that, for example the repetition of the phrase “sleeping in snatches” exactly mirrors its meaning.   I don't believe I have heard it performed better than on this occasion.

After the interval Jake Arditti and John Bacon returned for Abraham and Isaac. They blended in white voiced unison to produce the suitably otherworldly tone for the commands of God, and then set up a well judged measure of father and son chemistry as they split into their individual roles. Good use was made of pauses to let the words of one assimilate before an answer followed.


Finally, in deference to Britten's affinity for the sea, Nicholas Morris contributed a group of Sea Songs:   opening with Warlock's rousing Captain Stratton's Fancy. Continuing with words by Masefield and Sea Fever - it used to be such a regular favourite but now seems unjustly neglected - he rounded off the set with Santa Chiara – not an easy piece to bring off and conjure an appropriate vision of the Bay of Naples and the procession slowly proceeding “because it is the day of palms”.  With what seems to be the chorister's natural skill, he really found the measure of the church acoustics and made it work perfectly for him. Roger Vignoles' arrangement of The Mermaid, where even the pianist gets a line to sing, made a perfect finale.

Serena Fenwick

friendsofbritten@gmail.com 07942 321882
Musical Director, Charlotte Forrest, has more Britten on her immediate horizon as she will be working as Repetiteur on British Youth Opera's Albert Herring, with performances at The Peacock Theatre, London WC2 on 8, 12 & 14 September.  


Photo credit Roland Haupt