Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
DID BENJAMIN Britten ever compose a subtler work than his Lachrymae Op 48 for Viola and Piano - dedicated to the great violist William Primrose, with whom he gave the first performance at the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival? True these "Reflections on a song of Dowland" fall into much the same theme-and-variations format as a dozen other Britten scores, while some of the work's textures sound thin and ghostly.

But in this instance he adopted the novel approach of varying only the first half of Dowland's long melody, withholding the second half until near the end, when he allows his own music to dissolve into Dowland's remaining bars to create a deeply satisfying close. And while the notes on the page may often look sparse, every melodic turn, every carefully placed chord, every pause between them, even, proves dense in musical relationships and fraught with poetry. The opening page in particular, where Britten's thrumming accompaniment hovers weightlessly over Dowland's melody in the deep bass, is surely a locus classicus of that richly ambiguous vein of harmony Britten cultivated so individually in the Forties and Fifties, but which tended to disappear from the more linear concerns of his later music.

Once something of a rarity, Lachrymae turned up twice in this week's Radio 3. In Monday's lunchtime recital from the Wigmore Hall, the distinguished violist Tabea Zimmermann and her accompanist Hartmut Holl sandwiched the work, together with Alexander Goehr's recent Sur Terre, or en l'air, between three sets of warmly intimate viola and piano pieces by Schumann. A viola player himself, Britten wrote his string parts out of an insider's knowledge, which Zimmermann was able to exploit in a remarkable range of tone colours from her smoky low register to a fine-spun, almost violinistic sound at the top. Goehr's three-movement set (composed, like Ligeti's solo Viola Sonata, for Zimmermann herself) seemed at first to be a glancing, wistful "take" on the lost world of domestic music-making represented by the Schumann pieces - though, in the touching finale (a reworking of his recent memorial tribute to his teacher, Olivier Messiaen) he almost convinced us that the Schumann tradition still lives. Tomorrow's lunchtime re-broadcast of this exceptional concert should not be missed.

The other Lachrymae performance occurred in Wednesday morning's instalment of a week of nicely contrasted programmes that the artists of the Risor Festival of chamber music in Norway brought to the Wigmore Hall last summer. This, however, was in the alternative version for viola and string orchestra that Britten arranged in the last year of his life - though requiring only half the usual violin line-up so as not to cover the soloist's more muted tones. Even then, the need for the soloist to project more firmly over the amplified accompaniment deprives the work of some of its introspective intensity, though the violist, and co-director of the Risor Festival, Lars Anders Tomter, found a compensating eloquence.

It was also interesting to follow it with yet another reworking: Walton's re-scoring of his String Quartet in A Minor (1947) as his Sonata for Strings (1972). Rather maddeningly, the passages that work best in the one version tend to be the least effective in the other, and vice versa. But Walton's opening of the Sonata with the solo quartet, only gradually expanding the texture to the full string complement, offers a striking justification of the reworking - not least, in last Wednesday's context, because the Risor Festival Strings habitually play without a conductor, regarding themselves rather as an outsize string quartet.