A Benjamin Britten Festival, Lichfield, 22-24 November 2013

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

It can have escaped the attention of few – if any – that 2013 has marked the centenary of the birth of a figure regarded as the foremost British composer of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten (1913-76).  The centenary year has been a triumph most notably for the Britten Estate.  The marketing and outreach that has either been instigated or passed through the office of the Britten Estate is second to none.  I doubt even the centenaries of Mozart and Beethoven were as well represented.  But the joy of Britten – who is noted particularly for his vocal works, and the vitalisation of British opera – is that he wrote numerous works specifically for young people, so schools the length and breadth of the Britain, and beyond our shores, have been able to become involved in performance of such works as Friday Afternoons and Noyes Fludde.  Indeed, on Britten’s birthday itself – this coming Friday, 22 November – hundreds of simultaneous performances of Friday Afternoons will commemorate that date, with the involvement of over 100,000 children around the world, in places as far flung as America, China and Australia, not to mention 118 in Britten – sorry Britain! – alone (see here).    That date also marks the beginning of Lichfield’s Britten Festival, organised by Cathedral Director of Music, Cathy Lamb: a weekend of events which begins with the coming together of pupils from several schools in Lichfield in two performances of Noyes Fludde.

The full calendar of events is follows:

Friday 22 November

  • 3.0pm: Noyes Fludde.  Cathy Lamb conducts the performance, which is being directed by the Canon Precentor, Wealands Bell, with Fran Ambrose as Noye and Ailsa Cochrane as Mrs Noye.
  • 5.30pm: Choral Evensong, featuring Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin.
  • 7.30pm: Noyes Fludde (second performance).

Saturday 23 November‘s events are as follows:

  • 5.30pm: Choral Evensong, including the Hymn to St. Columba and canticles by Henry Purcell, who was a great influence on Britten.
  • 7.30pm: Evening Concert: Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir will be joined by DECO (the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra) in performances of both St. Nicholas and The Company of Heaven, conducted by Martyn Rawles.

and there follows a busy Sunday:

  • 9.30am: Choral Matins, including Britten’s Te Deum and Jubilate as well as Purcell’s Hear my prayer;
  • 11.0am: Choral Eucharist, including Britten’s Missa Brevis and ‘This Little Babe’ from A Ceremony of Carols;
  • 1.0pm: Lecture by Paul Spicer: ‘Benjamin Britten: Too Original for his own good?’
  • 3.30pm: Choral Evensong, with Britten A Hymn to St. Cecilia and another set of canticles by Purcell.
  • 5.0pm: Recital by Yours Truly, with Ben Lamb at the piano, including Britten’s marvellous Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.

Philip Lancaster song recital flyer.docSpeaking personally, it is a manically busy weekend, but is one to which I am looking forward with great excitement.  I am involved in every event except for the Eucharist and Lecture on the Sunday (the Eucharist being sung by the boys’ and girls’ choirs, so the gents of the choir are not required).  I am The Voice of God in Noye and one of the three readers in The Company of Heaven.  However, it is the recital which is the most exciting fare of the weekend (and the one for which I am most likely to be rather weary, after all preceding services and events of the weekend!)  It is not perhaps the joyful finale, but a dark, introspective look at the human condition.  The recital begins with the three songs written for Ronald Duncan’s play This Way to the Tomb, which ends with the Purcellian Ground Bass of ‘Night’.  There follows Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s powerful song, ‘Job’s Curse’, which sets the scene for The Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1965.  This is one of the most extraordinary works I have ever performed – one of the most difficult to learn, but by far one of the most satisfying.  The programme concludes with four folksong arrangements by Britten.  These are not the light froth that one might associate with the idea of folksong, but darker tales of loves lost.

I hope to see you sometime over the weekend!  For more details you can download the flyer here.

A Passing and an Affirmation

John Carol Case, 1923-2012

John Carol Case, 1923-2012

It was sad to read this afternoon that the fine English Baritone John Carol-Case died on 28 December 2012.  Although he has been long retired and has led a life out of the limelight in North Yorkshire, one cannot help feeling somewhat sad about the loss to English music – although his contribution to English song in particular lives on through his recorded legacy.

After reading the article on The Independent’s website (see here), I went (as one does in this digital age) to YouTube – being more readily (lazily!) available than the CD shelves – and found this performance of John Carol Case and Tod Handley performing Finzi’s ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’ from the string version of Let us Garlands bring.

Carol Case’s performance did that (too-?) rare thing to me as I listened: it made me think, yes! I really do want to be a singer!  Having several strings to my bow, as such, as editor, researcher, writer, lecturer etc etc, I came to the point a few years ago where I was considering giving up the singing to make way for these other activities.  Instead of giving up, I decided to lay my hand to the plough and try to see if there was something in it – which it is beginning to seem there might be.  It is moments like this, prompted by Carol Case’s passing, that reaffirms my desire to perform and remember what it is about it that makes me want to do it.  So as long as there are people who wish to listen, I shall sing.  If I can create something as special and truly beautiful as Carol Case does in this performance – not to mention his numerous others which I must revisit – then I shall have truly achieved something.  It is a rare thing though, so I shall just hope that people will get some enjoyment from what I do and carry on.  If the spark of magic happens, which one must always seek to capture, then it will be a blessed thing.

Recording Songs & Poems by Ivor Gurney

Recording Gurney in Powys with Gavin Roberts

Recording Gurney in Powys with Gavin Roberts

Earlier in the year, in a programme note for a recital I was giving as part of the English Music Festival, I got on my soap-box about the matter of programme planning:

Planning a recital programme can one of life’s great delights: How best can one fill an hour and a half of silence? One could put down old favourites, presenting one song or cycle after another; or one can endeavour to create something that hopes to enlighten not only its audience but also the works themselves by presenting them in a new context. The vocal recital presents more scope for a cohesive programme than an instrumental recital, being able to bring together a procession of not only music, but also of poetry, without which it can be easy to forget song would not exist.

Recitals are ephemeral things, and while the programme book may sit on the shelves of one of those attending, given the often specific requests or preferences of the respective promoters it is rare, in my limited but growing experience, for one to be able to repeat a programme.

When in November 2011 I was invited by Andrew McNeillie to record a CD of songs and poems by Ivor Gurney for Clutag Press, there came an opportunity to nail my colours to the mast in a medium that would, for better or for worse, be permanent.  As with a recital, it would be easy to lump together a series of songs and poems without too much thought – and indeed many such recital discs of a stream of single, apparently unconnected songs are in the catalogue.  But when programming the CD I sought to do something unique; something that took you on a journey akin to that such as Schubert’s Winterreise.

For six or seven years now I have been researching the work of Ivor Gurney, initially producing the first complete catalogue of his musical works, editing some of those musical works for performance, broadcast, recording and publication, and am in the process of editing, with Tim Kendall, Gurney’s complete poetry for publication in 3 volumes by Oxford University Press.

Being commissioned by a poetry press, poetry was always going to play an important role in the programme, and Gurney, being both composer and poet, was ripe for this treatment.  So when it came to the programming of this disk I had a plethora of material available to me: those of Gurney’s 330 songs that have been published or edited for performance, and all of the c.1500 poems and fragments, only a third of which have so far been published. And explored Gurney’s work in my research more extensively than perhaps any have been able to do so to date, I was in a unique position to create something that reflected his ideas and artistic preoccupations.  In selecting the songs and poems I sought to create connections between those original poems he wrote and those by others that he set to music.  For instance, an unpublished poetry fragment from 1921-2 almost exactly reflects Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Lights Out’, which Gurney set to music in 1918.  And so in the CD programme we encounter in both Gurney’s poetry and his musical settings his love of tales and Border Ballads; his love of the Severn vale, its river and environs; the war and its aftermath; and Gurney’s unfulfilled desire to go to sea, particularly as told through his affection for the Irish poets and their native land.  Within this programme there are recurrent motifs that I hope bind the programme together and create something quite unique; a programme that, while not a true narrative, is bound by a continuous thread.  For those who know Gurney’s work well, it should be of particular interest in that it includes several premieres: five songs that have not previously been recorded either at all or in the version presented, and eight as yet unpublished poems.

We finally went ‘into the studio’ last week – a week in which I also completed my doctoral thesis on Gurney – when pianist Gavin Roberts and I ventured into frost-bitten Powys to a place of great beauty and isolation in which is was our great pleasure to bring the programme, that had for some months been settled on paper, to an audio reality.

Whilst preparing for the recording I began to have doubts about some of the poems I had selected.  I then revisited the context in which those poems would be read, and was reassured; but when it came to the recording, and we began to bring the songs and poems to performance or reading, the selection was more than vindicated.  If all comes out in the wash, I hope the disc, provisionally entitled ‘The Far Country’, will be very special.  Fingers crossed that the first edits live up to our hopes and expectations.  In due course, do visit either my own website (www.philiplancaster.com) or the Clutag Press site, where details of the recording will be posted, once available, which we hope will be in May 2013.