Britten 100: St Nicolas and the String Quartets

Helen Wallace reports from a centenary weekend of performances in Suffolk

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Britten at Crag HouseThe Britten Centenary weekend in Aldeburgh could have been subtitled ‘Britten goes Local’, with works for children’s choruses, amateur choirs and recorder groups and the two raucous, spangled ‘community’ cantatas, Noye's Fludde and Saint Nicolas

But what an exceptional ‘community’ it was – and remains: for those struggling to muster a handful of trebles who can learn the descants this Christmas, imagine a neighbourhood with a world-class tenor, two crack choruses – one child (Jubilee Chorus), one adult (Aldeburgh Voices) – and an orchestra led by violinists Clio Gould and her husband Jonathan Morton…. Imagine and weep. It’s a measure of Britten’s living legacy that those musicians gathered for the Suffolk Ensemble were genuinely residents (good to see Kenneth Sillito in the ranks, too, who had played under the composer in the ECO). 

It’s often said that Britten never ‘wrote down’ to his locals, but you only have to hear the opening of Saint Nicolas with its intricate, arabesque violin solo to realise this is more in the tradition of Bach’s own Cantatas than Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s Joseph. In fact, though written for the boys of Lancing College, this poetic history lesson on the life of the fourth-century martyr is hardly likely to appeal to children expecting the low-down on the original Santa Claus.

Nevertheless, if this 1948 work isn’t as colourful Noye’s Fludde, Britten responded to the miraculous tale with trademark humour and imagination: the birth and childhood of Nicolas is told in a wicked cabaret-style waltz, piano, pizzicato strings and whip-crack, the smallest boy intoning ‘god be glorified’ at the end of each verse with tenor Alan Oke taking over for the last verse – boy has become man.

Oke could have been teleported from the English National Opera stage where he’s playing Ghandi in Satyagraha: this role required the same strain of serene pathos - ‘Tame our stubborn hearts’ – which he delivered with his inimitable brand of charismatic stillness. The central drama is a terrific, surging tempest, which Nicolas stills, leading to his triumphant welcome as Bishop of Myra, the Jubilee Chorus gilding each line of the Aldeburgh Voices in sunlit waves.

Most touching were the three ‘pickled’ boys, brought alive again, beaming and tousle-haired in the footlights. Conductor Ben Parry succeeded in keeping the separated choirs and orchestra in line and elicited a warm rendition of the hymns from the congregation, particularly the final pianissimo ‘God moves in mysterious ways’.  Britten may have been ambivalent about Anglicanism, but he drew deeply on its rich musical troves: the sadness is that such hymns may not be known to future generations.

String Quartets

If Saint Nicolas was the ‘raw’, the Snape Maltings chamber concerts were most definitely the ‘cooked’. In his string quartets we hear Britten’s writing reaching a winnowed purity. From the boisterously playful Divertimenti, we journeyed through the dew-fresh First Quartet, the labyrinthine complexity of the Second to the snowflake-like perfection of the valedictory Third. The Belcea Quartet was sadly unable to perform the series, but its absence made way for three young quartets, the Benyounes, the Kuss and Ensemble 360. I heard the latter two, which made for a fascinating contrast.

The Kuss took the Third, Britten’s swan-song, and prefaced it with Schubert’s own final 15th quartet, D887. This big-scale utterance is notoriously tricky to capture: it needs to be powerful yet numinous; bewilderingly unstable yet grounded. The highlight was a spacious Andante, where Mikayel Hakhnazaryan’s miraculously beautiful cello was given room to sing. The opening was deliberate rather than dynamic, followed by a theme that, while delicate, failed to float. The swinging finale didn’t quite find its cross-rhythmic groove, in part because of an unusual imbalance in this group: leader Jana Kuss’s rather thin, dry sound was often overwhelmed by the striking tonal depth of viola (William Coleman) and cello.

This was less of an issue in Britten’s Third Quartet, which unlocks the very core of each instrument in its exploratory opening Duets. Zinging major seconds and open strings glowed and crackled in the warm, resonant acoustic of Snape Maltings. Kuss unwound the long slow movement solo with airborne grace, while they found the fun - and the fire – in the Burlesque. An exquisite Recitative & Passacaglia, Hakhnazaryan treading a velvet, barely-there bass line, Coleman and Kuss caressing each phrase before letting them go, made for a moving finale.

Sunday morning brought Ensemble 360 and a bracing dash through the Divertimenti (‘Go play, boy, play’). These early experimental pieces should dazzle and shock, and one immediately felt in the presence of players who embraced them with affectionate abandon – and had the skill to bring it off. Leader Benjamin Nabarro’s glossy, edgy sound sliced through the uproarious Burlesque and provided the heft for a sustained, penetrating melody in the Andante calmo of the first string quartet after a drily witty Allegretto. I was once again struck by the radical opening of this work, with its stratospherically high chords keening over pizzicato cello: forget Vaughan Williams, here in the harmonic white-light are the real larks, trilling in the sunshine above Iken fen.

Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet made for an odd bedfellow: its familiar tragedy and coruscating humour are so clearly laid before us, it somehow required a less intense level of attention, and reminded one of just how ambiguous and elusive Britten’s chamber works remain to 21st-century ears. Tim Horton joined Ensemble 360 at the piano (which could have been more finely etched in this acoustic) for a big-boned, sweeping performance. Sheffield is lucky indeed to have these musicians in residence.

All these concerts were broadcast on Radio 3 and can be heard again on the Radio 3 website and iPlayer.

Photo: Britten at Crag House c1949 photographed by Roland Haupt