Celebrations for classical giants Britten and Wagner dominate a lively musical spring season in the Midlands. Christopher Morley reports.
2013 is a year bringing some blockbuster anniversaries, furnishing plenty of musical themes for programme-planners.
The United Kingdom has its own massive celebration with the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.
Germany and Italy have their own, with the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi respectively, two operatic giants born in the same year; and France, perhaps a little more modestly, marks the death of the endearing Francis Poulenc half a century ago.
Here in the West Midlands, the year kicks off with a huge BrittenFest, the earliest in the entire country. Entitled A Boy was Born, it begins with a Britten Discovery Day at the CBSO Centre on Saturday, January 12, running from 10.30am to 5pm.
Talks, live music and discussion will examine themes which run through the whole of Britten’s output, from the innocence of childhood to the darkness of the human condition, often set against the Suffolk seascape which colours so much of his music.
That same evening Jeffrey Skidmore directs Ex Cathedra in what is a truly generous programme of choral music by Britten.
These are all comparatively early works and include among the riches A Boy was Born, the visionary Rejoice in the Lamb set to Christopher Smart’s hallucinatory poetry, and the radiant Hymn to Saint Cecilia, Auden’s words, and composed (along with A Ceremony of Carols) while Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, were returning to wartime England across the Atlantic from America in a Swedish cargo-boat.
More Britten follows at the Town Hall the next day, when the aptly-named Britten Sinfonia performs A Simple Symphony and the kaleidoscopic ariations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.
The programme is completed with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and, oh yes, a little matter of the wonderful Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt as soloist in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto.
The acclaimed tenor Ian Bostridge makes two important contributions to this Britten Festival. On Wednesday, January 16 he sings a winter-based programme at Birmingham Town Hall, Julius Drake at the piano, featuring Britten’s uncomfortable Thomas Hardy settings, Winter Words. Bostridge crosses Centenary Square on March 6 to join the CBSO at Symphony Hall for a performance of Britten’s searing Rimbaud song-cycle Les Illuminations.
Conductor Michael Seal’s programme on that evening also includes Britten’s Prelude and Fugue for string orchestra, as well as Elgar’s In the South Overture and Enigma Variations.
Before that date, however, the CBSO brings other Britten celebrations, beginning with the fabulous but too-rarely performed Spring Symphony, Edward Gardner conducting the orchestra, the CBSO Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus and a distinguished trio of vocalists in this life-enhancing work (January 17 and 19).
On February 6 Ilan Volkov’s programme with the CBSO includes Britten’s sparky pre-war Piano Concerto, Steven Osborne the soloist, preceded by Michael Seal conducting the Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra’s pre-concert showcase concert in Britten’s doom-laden, ultimately consolatory Sinfonia da Requiem.