Red House Recitals
In July 2021, tenor Stuart Jackson, mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron and pianist Jocelyn Freeman recorded a wonderful recital in Britten’s Library at The Red House. The recital is presented here in three parts, and Part 1 includes a fascinating conversation between the three performers and Dr Lucy Walker of Britten Pears Arts, in which they discuss Britten’s song-writing, and what it feels like to perform his vocal music.
Canticles I and II, and Conversation with the Performers
Britten’s Canticle I was composed in 1947, and is a beautiful setting of Francis Quarles’ poem based on the biblical text ‘The Song of Songs’ (also known as ‘The Canticles’). It was written for Peter Pears, and composer and tenor premiered it at the Central Hall in Westminster in 1947, at a memorial concert to Dick Sheppard (founder of the Peace Pledge Union). It is a remarkably beautiful work, in three contrasting sections, with a powerful refrain: ‘I my best beloved’s am, so he is mine’. Canticle II ‘Abraham and Isaac’ was written 5 years later and is a setting from the Chester Miracle Plays for tenor and mezzo-soprano. The tenor plays Abraham, commanded by God to kill his son Isaac (mezzo-soprano) to demonstrate his obedience. It is a mini-drama, effectively, with both voices playing roles, and combining to glorious effect to portray the voice of God.
A Charm of Lullabies
Britten’s only song-cycle for mezzo-soprano was composed in 1947 for Nancy Evans (who had played the lead role in The Rape of Lucretia the previous year, alternating with Kathleen Ferrier). The texts are a mix of soothing and unsettling, and in their
various ways suggest to the listener that you’re never too young to be told of life’s dangers. The outer songs are perhaps the most ‘lullaby-like’, with the middle songs – especially ‘A Charm’ – unlikely to soothe anyone to a peaceful rest. Britten’s music is characteristically beautiful, haunting, playful and disturbing throughout.
Three wonderful pairs of folksongs feature in the final part of this Red House Recital. Stuart Jackson sings three of Britten’s most well-known folksong settings: ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew’, ‘The Salley Gardens’ and ‘The Last Rose of Summer’; and Fleur Barron pairs these with some beautiful Chinese folksongs – ‘Flowers in the Mist’ by Chinese composer Huang Tzu (1904-1938), and two traditional folksongs, ‘Fengyang Drums’ and ‘Chinese Lullaby’.
Music by permission of Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Limited.