independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Great Britten

Deck the Halls: Matthew will conduct a performance of 'Saint Nicolas' by Benjamin Britten as part of next Friday's concert.

Ah memories of Leaving Certificate music. I knew every note of Stravinsky's Firebird and I loved it. I was also intrigued by a song cycle we had to study, written in 1943, entitled Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. On first hearing it, I wasn't sure if I liked it, I had never heard anything like it. But I continued to listen and was hooked. Who was this composer who had created music that was so original and unique?

The piece was written by English composer Benjamin Britten, born 100 years ago yesterday, on the feast of St Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. The Benjamin Britten centenary has resulted in the publication of four major new books on the composer and performances of his music around the world.

Next Friday in the National Concert Hall, an all-Britten programme will be performed by The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Matthew Halls.

The English conductor, harpsichordist and organist spoke to me this week. He is particularly associated with early music and told me that he became aware of Britten's music because of the admiration Britten had for Purcell and other Baroque composers.

"My first real connection with his music was when I was working as an opera chorus master in Holland and I was lucky enough to be involved in two major productions of Peter Grimes in my early 20s. It was at that point I fell under the spell of Britten."

The opera Peter Grimes (1945) became one of Britten's most famous works. Recurring themes in his operas are the struggle of an outsider against a hostile society, and the corruption of innocence. There can be an eeriness and a certain intensity in his music.

It's not all doom and gloom though. Britten's other works range from orchestral to choral, solo vocal, chamber and instrumental as well as film music. He also took a great interest in writing music for children.

'Saint Nicolas', which is included in next Friday's concert, is an enchanting portrait of the patron saint of Christmas.

"Britten uses brilliant colourful music to try and express who this man was and his journey in life from birth to death," says Matthew.

Britten's lesser-known cello symphony will also be performed. Soloist Pieter Wispelwey said it took him a long time to get under the skin of the piece but that the rewards were massive.

Matthew has heard the composer referred to as a steely individual who enjoyed his privacy, but he also stresses how incredibly supportive Britten was to the boy choristers he worked with. "Once you broke into his musical world there was limitless learning to be done there."

So what about an audience for the music of Britten? Matthew has seen a great reaction in recent concerts, including Britten's rarely performed 'Prelude and Fugue' for 18 solo strings in Stuttgart which he says went down a storm.

Centenary celebrations for Britten can only be a good thing. His music is being performed all over the world by internationally renowned orchestras and opera companies. Britten's reach will be truly global, a fitting tribute to this composer who was described by his peer Michael Tippett as "the most purely musical person I have ever met".

Big On Britten – RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Pater Wispelwey (cello), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), RTÉ Cór na nÓg, RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, Matthew Halls (conductor). National Concert Hall, next Friday, 8pm. See www.nch.ie

Aedín Gormley presents Movies and Musicals (Sat 1-4pm) and Sunday Matinée (Sun 12-2pm) on RTÉ lyric fm.

Irish Independent

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