The Britten Centenary began here, on his 99th birthday, on Saint Cecilia Day, at Wigmore Hall, and it seemed only fitting that the composer who gave him so much inspiration should have the first word – or should I say the first “tune”. It’s the tune that has captivated generations of “young persons” on their guided tours of the symphony orchestra and though there were no variations or fugue on this occasion its exuberance rang out resolutely in the strings of the ensemble bearing the birthday boy’s name.
There was to be more of Britten’s beloved Purcell and the first of those reimaginings – or hommages – came from another precocious talent – Nico Muhly – and brought the evening’s star guest, Alice Coote to the stage. Muhly, too, has fallen under Purcell’s spell and his rapt projection of the sacred song “Let the night perish” shrouds the voice in magical transformations, harmonic and textural, sustained high notes in violins and violas dramatically counterpointed with the sepulchral bottom of Coote’s extraordinarily expressive voice. One wanted to substitute that voice for Leopold Stokowski’s cello in the wily old wizard’s sumptuous string arrangement of “Dido’s Lament” but one could at least bask in the intimacy of the Britten Sinfonia and put paid to thoughts of the Philadelphia strings making a public banquet of Dido’s very private grief. A flashback to Dido’s very first aria then brought Tippett’s distinctive voice into the mix – another Purcell devotee exhibiting his great gift for fantasy in a succession of wondrous embellishments, trills, and arabesques, the harmony so natural and original and inevitable even as it grows denser. It seems almost churlish to mention but this was the one item in a marvelous evening that pulled one up a little short with uncharacteristic tuning issues. Enough said.
But with a real Britten masterpiece – Phaedra – in our sights this cunningly programmed evening brought on Handel – a trio of Ruggiero’s arias from Alcina – and though parallels might be drawn with aspects of Britten’s late Cantata, this part of the evening was really all about Alice Coote. It was her moment to shine. And shine she did. The gentle undulating lines of “Mi lusings il dolce affetto”, the veiled pianissimo in the da capo of “Verdi prati”, and the imperious tigress of “Sta nell’Ircana” with fiery unasperated (pace Bartoli) runs and one or two whopping chest notes deployed with caution one hopes for big effects, she brought the house down.
And the riches kept coming. I’ve never heard Britten’s Prelude and Fugue Op.29 live – echoes of Shostakovich in the prelude blasted to the four winds in a dazzling fugue – and Tippett’s Little Music for Strings was anything but little and robustly, exhilaratingly dispatched. Leader/Director Jacqueline Shave is such a driving force on that front desk.
But finally the curtain rose, metaphorically speaking, and Britten was “on stage” (where he belonged) with the extraordinary work he wrote for Janet Baker less than 17 months before his death. There isn’t one note of Phaedra that isn’t the right note, not one note that doesn’t exude theatricality. These are among the most dramatic sixteen minutes in 20th century music. But it’s the inwardness of the piece that moves us so. Alice Coote tells us, her confidantes, of her guilty passion for her stepson Hippolyte reliving her desire in panting repetitions (“I love you ! Fool, I love you, I adore you!”) and losing her reason to shame. The moment of self-disclosure is a majestic statement – “The wife of Theseus loves Hippolytus!” – the kind of moment that Britten always nails – but that is as nothing compared to her dying confession and Coote, sharing inconsolable grief with solo cello, weighted every word as though it was her last. What an evening and what a portent for the year ahead.