THE CRITICS MUSIC
BENJAMIN BRITTEN once said of the poet W H Auden that he was "in all my operas". It was a strange remark to make when you consider that Auden didn't write him a single theatre text beyond the early and, at the time, unsuccessful operetta Paul Bunyan. But in other ways Auden did exert a considerable, enduring, some might say un- healthy influence on the composer, which was the focus of Tuesday's concert (prefaced by readings) in the Wigmore Hall's Britten Songs series.

The "Britten Songs" is a long project - starting last September, finishing in January - structured around four poets to whom Britten felt especially close: Hardy, Donne and Blake as well as Auden. But Auden was the only one with whom he had a living relationship, and it was - up to a point - a relationship of the flesh as well as the mind. During the mid to late Thirties Auden was undoubtedly in love with Britten, and some of his best verse from those years is laced with coded messages of affection: not least the "Lullaby" (enjoying a new lease of life after Four Weddings and a Funeral) which Auden inscribed in one of Britten's vocal scores, as a farewell gift before leaving for a brief encounter with the Spanish Civil War.

Needless to say, things didn't last. Auden was an oppressively dominant personality - not at all the temperament for a librettist - and the arrival of Peter Pears on the scene ensured that he was thereafter kept at a safe distance. But from 1935 to 1942 he was effectively Britten's writer-in- residence. Or, more accurately, Britten was Auden's composer-in-residence, sucked into the circle of writers and artists who comprised the Group Theatre: an enterprise that largely existed to stage Auden's work.

In terms of direct Britten-Auden collaborations, these were the years of Night Mail, Our Hunting Fathers, On This Island, Paul Bunyan and the "Hymn to St Cecilia". But when the collaborations stopped, the voice of Auden in Britten's ear did not. He kept a lingering role as self-appointed counsellor on matters cultural and sexual; and it seems now to be the case that he planted in Britten's mind the issues that stalked the composer's work ever after. Issues of innocence and corruption, the individual and society, and the acceptance or denial of desires. On this last point, Auden - ever dedicated to the flesh - favoured acceptance and encouraged Britten, ever reticent, to play the piano as an aid to seduction.

Barbara Bonney, the American soprano in Tuesday's concert, is very much an "innocent" voice: girlishly light, with an exquisite, technically immaculate charm. But then the song sequence On This Island, which formed the centrepiece of her programme, was originally written for such a light, ethereal, feminine voice (the Thirties soprano Sophie Wyss), and for all her exquisiteness, Bonney gave each song its full, distinctive value. I call this a sequence rather than a cycle because the stylistic diversity of the songs doesn't really allow them to cohere in true cyclic manner. They start with a piece of pure, neo-baroque display, pass through what could almost be parodies of Faure and Strauss, and end up in cabaret. But Bonney found the right tone for everything, without exaggeration and within the bounds of taste. She also caught the tension between public and private in the verse: the sly packaging of arcane sentiments in simple language that makes Auden approachable even when he isn't understandable.

On the minus side, there isn't much bottom to Ms Bonney's voice, and she has the sort of tight, contained vibrato that could well develop into a bleat if she isn't careful. She's also a bit lazy on diction, with the odd American vowel-sound dropped like an incendiary device into otherwise nicely turned English phrases. It was a pity that her opening song - one of Haydn's English settings - began "O tuneful voice I still deplore thy accents"; or, as Ms Bonney has it, "toonful". But still, it is a gloriously tuneful voice, beautifully controlled, intelligently used; and it's a relief to find, after the death of Geoffrey Parsons, that she has found so sympathetic a new accompanist in Julius Drake. Their final encore, Britten's "Waly Waly", which I'm tempted to declare the most poignant English folksong setting ever committed to print, came close to perfection. I just wish the last line hadn't "fade(d) away like morning doo".

The weeks before Christmas are when the great choirs of England get out on parole - released from their chapels, abbeys and cathedrals into the concert halls. As often as not, it's disappointing, because the voices find it hard to deal with the almost invariably drier acoustic of a concert building. In my experience these sorts of Christmas concerts usually work better with smaller, professional, non-church choirs like The Sixteen and Polyphony, who shouldered the weight of the Christmas Festival that ran all this week at St John's, Smith Square. For good measure, it included the all-singing, playing and (very nearly) dancing polymath ensemble the Dufay Collective, whose concert romped through the 15th- and 16th-century origins of Yuletide carolling, and demonstrated the healthy indifference of those times to strict divisions between secular and sacred.

But the best choral music I've heard this Christmas has been on-site. The St Paul's Cathedral Advent Carol Service was austere (Advent being, after all, a penitential season) but transcendent, with repertory designed to show off the ex- ceptional standard of the St Paul's boys at the moment. Their current star is the televisual and litigious (so I'd better be careful) Anthony Way. But there were treble soloists at this service as good, if not better: pliant, musical, free of the old affectations of Anglican hoot, and a joy to hear in modern classics like Richard Lloyd's setting of the Advent Prose and Philip Wilby's "Echo Carol". That you can walk into a church like St Paul's and experience choral singing of this quality, more or less any day of the week and without charge, has to be one of the proudest cultural claims this country can make. Go where you will - Vienna, Paris, Rome, New York - you'll find nothing better. Nothing even comparable.

My other pre-Christmas outing was to the Eton College End-of-Term Concert which, as such things go, was of a disarmingly high standard. Eton is not a specialist music school, but it might as well be, with eight full- time music staff and 51 part-time. More than 600 of the boys study an instrument. And yes, of course, it's all part of the trappings of a bastion of privilege. But the privilege of Eton isn't quite as unobtainable as you'd think. The school wants musicians - an uncommon attitude - and offers a surprising number of free places at Common Entrance and sixth-form levels to get them. What's more, some sixth-form places go to waste for lack of truly gifted applicants. A passing thought for 1996.

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