A few addenda to my current column about Ian Bostridge's Britten recital. The tenor's recording of Serenade, Nocturne, and Les Illuminations, with Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, was released last year by EMI, and it's a great document. There's also his very fine account of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and other songs for Hyperion, although he would probably bring more emotional edge to the material if he were to record it again today (which he should, alongside Winter Words). For the more advanced Brittenite, I recommend a Virgin Classics disc of the five Canticles. I haven't heard the Virgin recording of Turn of the Screw with Bostridge as Quint. If Britten is totally new to you, start with Jon Vickers's stupendous recording of Peter Grimes, although unfortunately the latest reissue contains no libretto. A few nights after the Britten recital, Bostridge presented a second, equally gratifying concert, with the expert, extroverted Belcea Quartet: Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge, Fauré's La Bonne chanson, Shostakovich's Third Quartet. (See Charles Downey's lovely review of the DC version.) Two more Perspectives are slated for May.
I begin my column with a brief account of Britten's visit to the
former concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in July, 1945, in the
company of Yehudi Menuhin. A remarkable anecdote about their performance
can be found in Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed's edition of Britten's
correspondence and diaries (Letters from a Life, vol. 2, pp.
1273-74). In the notes, the editors quote from a letter that Anita Lasker, a young cellist who had survived the camp,
wrote to her aunt after the recital: "It was a beautiful evening.
Both soloist and accompanist were of a simplicity regarding their
attire which almost bordered on the slovenly, which fitted the local
atmosphere perfectly, No need to mention that Menuhin played
violinistically to perfection.... Concerning the accompanist, I can only
say that I just can not imagine anything more beautiful (wonderful).
Somehow one never noticed that here was any accompanying going on at
all, and yet I had to stare at this man like one transfixed as he sat
seemingly suspended between chair and keyboard, playing so beautifully."
Across the pond, Helen Radice is playing in a performance of Britten's War Requiem in London. She quotes the composer as follows: "It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love." Britten said relatively little about music in public; he once told Joan Peyser of the New York Times that composers talk too much. What he did say counted.
If you read the article online, you'll be missing a masterly portrait of Bostridge by Steve Pyke, who took memorable photographs of Gerald Finley and David Robertson for past articles of mine. I took the above sub-Pykean photo in Britten's home town of Aldeburgh in 1995.