Lincoln Center Chamber players pay homage to Britten in centennial year

Thu May 09, 2013 at 8:18 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Benjamin Britten

“Welcome to Lincoln Center,” said pianist and Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society co-artistic director Wu Han. “AND Harris Theater,” she added.

Introducing Wednesday night’s all-Britten centennial concert to a small but devoted audience, Han noted the wide diversity and imagination of Benjamin Britten, whom we tend to associate more with large-scale works such as the War Requiem or Peter Grimes.

The Lincoln Center program placed a different spotlight on the British composer who mastered a wide variety of musical forms going back to his student years. In fact, some of those very pieces made up the first part of the program.

The Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 6, that opened the evening dates from 1934-5 when Britten was a mere 21 years old and yet already reveals the high level of craft that would become a signature of Britten compositions throughout his entire career.

What was not quite fully evident was Britten’s own compositional voice as we would come to know it, with touches of Bartók, Berg and Debussy still discernible in his early toolbox.

Kudos to violinist Todd Phillips for the exquisite intonation employed in the precarious high sections and the sense of playfulness employed by both Phillips and pianist Gloria Chen in the mock-waltz finale that by design, never quite gets off the ground.

Performed with relish by the Orion Quartet, Three Divertimentos for String Quartet from a year later reveal traces of Copland and a fascination with ostinato and syncopation, all superbly crafted, while the Phantasy Quartet, Op. 2, for oboe, violin, viola and cello from Britten’s teenage years, reveals a Stravinsky neo-classical influence already displaying a keen and mature sense of whimsy.

The weakest pieces on the program, Two Insect Pieces for oboe and piano felt affectatious. Oboist James Austin Smith, who did such a beautiful job with the lingering melodies in the Phantasy Quartet, seemed reluctant to let himself go.

The second half of the program consisted of mature Britten masterpieces, including Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac for Countertenor, Tenor and Piano, Op. 15 from 1952. A contemporary take on medieval mystery plays, the work was written for Peter Pears and originally performed with female alto.

To have a tenor — in this case, Anthony Dean Griffey who recently sang a memorable Mitch at Lyric Opera’s production of Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire — and a countertenor, Daniel Taylor, sing this moving work was immensely effective. Like Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, here the voice of God is multi-voiced, sung as ethereal duets where Griffey and Taylor blended seamlessly.

Abraham and Isaac are then vocally set off distinctively, yet intimately, showing the close relationship and trust that exists between them. The tension build-up to the moment where Isaac realizes that he is to be killed by his own father but then comes to accept that and the consternation this causes both of them is as gripping as any of Britten’s greatest opera scenes.

Equally brilliant is the way that Britten has father and son singing a canon of thanksgiving and praise that lifts up and becomes one with the voice of God.

Gloria Chen provided accompaniment that was deeply respectful of the work’s many pregnant pauses and a cappella sections and yet added dramatic density and additional intensity as needed.

Mstislav Rostropovich was a huge fan of Britten, in fact, Britten was working on a commissioned piece for Rostropovich’s inaugural concert as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra when he passed away in 1976.

Britten wrote a number of cello pieces for Rostropovich over the years but the first of these was the Cello Sonata, Op. 65, that Rostropovich had “bullied” out of him, to use Britten’s own description, when they first met in 1960 that Rostropovich and Britten subsequently performed together and recorded.

Being able to erase memories of  that famous recording is a high compliment to cellist David Finckel and Wu Han, who really made this piece their own, no small feat. Finckel was calculated and varying in his interpretive choices, dynamics and timbres and Han was right with him, every step of the way.

The Elegia: Lento movement was particularly memorable with its low lyrical cello melody incorporating effortless double stops, all punctuated with evocative high pointillistic piano accompaniment.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY; lincolncenter.org; (212) 721-6500.

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