Benjamin Britten - In Memoriam, Wigmore Hall, London

Britten and his many loves
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The Independent Culture

Though the Philharmonia's concert performance of Death in Venice had taken place two weeks before Benjamin Britten: In Memoriam began, Aschenbach's agonised exclamation "I... I... I love you!" blazed across this remarkable three-day sequence of concerts. Love, in its purest and most compromised forms, was the subject of many of the works: from the terrible sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac and the suburban disillusionment of "As it is, plenty", to the tragic optimism of "The Chimney-sweeper", the jealous ravings of Phaedra, the swooning sensuality of Les Illuminations, and the glittering dream-world of Britten's third and last String Quartet.

There is little to say about the Belcea Quartet's performance of this, and of the Second String Quartet and Three Divertimenti. They are pre-eminent in this repertoire - so supple in their expressivity, so magically blended and balanced, so pristine in their intonation and confident in articulation and colouration that they make Britten's most gymnastic declamations sound easy. (Of course, they are not.) This was sublime playing, elegantly and eloquently shaped, with grave melancholy in the Grimes-ean chaconne of the Second Quartet, icy beauty in Corina Belcea-Fisher's performance of central movement of the Third Quartet, and impeccable restraint through the valedictory passacaglia, La Serenissima.

The brilliance of Britten's writing for strings was further emphasized in the Nash Ensemble's performance of Les Illuminations, Phaedra and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings under Edward Gardner. Heard in the Wigmore's perfect acoustics and played by small ensemble of indisputable virtuosi these were almost overwhelming. Biting violins, intoxicating violas, warm cellos and fervent double-basses magnified the opulence of Rimbaud's words and Britten's dazzling orchestration. Lisa Milne sang Les Illuminations with passion, appetite and a glowing, proud tone, though Catherine Wyn-Rogers's pride as the humiliated Phaedra was even more intense, and her delivery of Robert Lowell's toxic monologue searing in its bitterness. Mark Padmore's introspective reading of the Serenade was the antidote to her wild recriminations; elevated in Ben Johnson's Hymn and Keats's Sonnett, softly menacing in the Dirge and Elegy, considerate to his horn player, Richard Watkins, and the strings, yet somehow projecting solitude on a crowded stage.

Padmore also gave the most successful of the solo recitals, singing the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente and Britten's sometimes twee, sometimes tart Hardy settings, Winter Words. His delicacy in communicating the text was admirable, most especially in "Midnight on the Great Western", and was mirrored in Roger Vignoles's meticulously controlled and shaded accompaniment. Would that he had been playing the previous night. Lisa Milne's vivid account of the Auden cycle On this Island was undermined by Graham Johnson's butter-fingered accompaniment, as were Wyn-Rogers's performance of A Charm of Lullabies and Padmore's performance of Who are these children, and the accompaniment to The Holy Sonnets of John Donne was abysmally muddied and vague. Only Simon Keenlyside's reading of the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake was charismatic enough to inspire Johnson to more concentrated playing.

Vignoles was again the pianist in John Mark Ainsley's performance of the Five Canticles with counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, baritone Leigh Melrose, harpist Lucy Wakeford, and Watkins. Sung through, with barely a pause between each work, Ainsley's performance was magnificent. Languid and blissful in the 1947 setting of Francis Quarles's radiant declaration of physical and romantic love, My beloved is mine, cool and perfectly blended with Davies's young, sweet sound as the voice of God then wracked with crude dread as Abraham in the 1952 setting of Abraham and Isaac, hollow and horrified in the 1954 setting of Edith Sitwell's Still falls the Rain, gruff and world-weary in the 1971 Journey of the Magi, and smokily sophisticated in 1974's The Death of Saint Narcissus, Ainsley brought his operatic presence to bear on these songs with formidable effect. This was singing at its most artful, and accompaniment at its most assured.

Tudor borrowings and faux-Scottish accents aside - and, gosh, A Charm of Lullabies, Who are these children and the Lachrymae for solo viola and strings sounded weak against the other works - I left feeling impressed again by the acuity of Britten's poetic imagination and his unique aptitude for catching the rhythm of consonants and the pitch of vowels. Whether you regard him as a great composer or a composer who enjoyed moments of greatness, this was an anniversary worthy of commemoration.