16 aug music rev britten serenade 1

Meng Su

“Britten Serenade”

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Aug. 7

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s “Britten Serenade” looked especially inviting on paper, thanks to its innovative programming, and it was just as satisfying to experience in performance.

Guitarist Meng Su opened the concert with Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland for solo guitar. Britten turned to a famous song by John Dowland, “Come Heavy Sleep,” which was written in 1597, and then used it in a totally newfangled way. His piece begins with a series of eight variations on the song and ends with the original song as the finale — the inverse of the classic “theme and variations” format.

Meng Su’s playing was stylish, expressive, and technically secure, with an impressive range of dynamics and virtually no finger slips or buzzing strings. The only miscalculation came during some of the quietest moments, when the music was hard to hear over the ambient and audience noise.

Immediately afterward, tenor Paul Appleby joined her to perform the Dowland song. The composer was particularly known for this and many other melancholy songs; he acknowledged his reputation by titling one of them “Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens,” (“Always Dowland, Always Doleful”). Their performance demonstrated how much emotional impact a skilled Renaissance composer could compress into a 3-minute song, with Appleby’s beautifully produced lyric tenor auguring well for the success of the next piece.

Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings was written during the winter of 1942-1943 for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears, and for a 22-year-old member of a British military band, Dennis Brain, who turned out to be the greatest horn player of his generation.

The composer viewed the work with typical British modesty — “not important stuff, but quite pleasant, I think,” as he described it — but it turned out to bring him widespread acclaim for the first time.

Six highly evocative songs, all to poems by British authors, are at the heart of the piece. Each song is about a different aspect of nighttime thoughts. Some are celebratory, some are reassuring, and one — a setting of the medieval era’s “Lyke-Wake Dirge” — is positively terrifying in its description of the torments of hell. The serenade begins with a long horn solo, which is repeated after the songs. Britten specifies that the finale be played from offstage, and thoughtfully provides time for the player to travel by not including horn in the orchestration for the preceding song.

Simply put, this performance was stupendous. It’s just about impossible to imagine how Appleby and horn player Stefan Dohr could be bettered. The same applies to the 18 string players led by conductor David Zinman, whose long relationship with the piece was apparent in perfectly gauged tempos, phrasing, and dynamics.

Having earned a degree in English literature as well as in voice, Appleby may be the best of all possible lyric tenors in this music. Superb diction, excellent breath control, nicely judged dynamics, and a wide range of vocal colors were in evidence throughout. His ability to dig into the text and convey meaning, sometimes with the simplest of means, was equally impressive.

Dohr’s playing was just as admirable, astonishing in its clarity, certainty of pitch, and expressiveness. (He’s the principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which has one of the world’s finest brass sections.) The horn part isn’t just technically demanding — it really functions as a duet with the tenor, and they were perfectly in sync. Britten asked that the 90-second horn solos, which begin and end the serenade, be played without the use of valves, which gives them an archaic sound: Some of the notes produced are slightly sharp or flat compared to standard tuning.

Dohr emphasized the historical aspect of Britten’s request by using a “waldhorn,” the instrument we associate with fox hunting, which was used in classical music up until the early 19th century. It’s basically a long metal tube coiled into a circle, with a mouthpiece at one end and a flared bell at the other. His waldhorn playing was also superb, and it conveyed a haunting, timeless quality, especially in the epilogue, which was played in the lobby.

After a hushed pause, an enormous wave of applause greeted the performers. It was in part an acknowledgment of their skill, but just as much the realization that an emotionally compelling masterpiece with multiple layers of imagery and meaning had just been heard.

The Orion String Quartet, which has an especially long relationship with the festival, closed the concert with Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet. The nickname was coined by a sales-savvy music publisher years after Schubert’s death. It comes from the second movement, a theme and variations that Schubert based on his earlier song of the same name. Some commentators see the entire work as death-haunted, although the composer himself was silent on the subject.

The dramatic first movement is often interpreted almost violently. Here, the Orion Quartet took a more balanced approach, keeping Schubert’s melodic sensibility present during even the moments of greatest tumult. The four instruments were nicely balanced, with the inner voices clearly audible. The second movement brought some intonation problems, especially during the third variation, in which the first violin plays an elaborate obbligato part over a stormy gallop. The final movement, marked “very fast,” was spirited but nicely articulated. It never seemed out of control, except for one out-of-tune attack on a very prominent entrance by the first violin.

Overall, this was a mostly gratifying performance of a familiar chamber music masterpiece. For most listeners, though, the “Britten Serenade” will be the piece they remember and continue to reflect on, especially as they’re about to fall asleep. 

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