Monday 6 January 2020

Britten and Dowland from Allan Clayton, Sean Shibe, Timothy Ridout and James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall

Julian Bream and Peter Pears
Julian Bream and Peter Pears
John Dowland songs, Britten Songs from the Chinese, Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland, Nocturnal after John Dowland, The Way to the Tomb, Winter Words; Allan Clayton, Timothy Ridout, Sean Shibe, James Baillieu; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 January 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A brilliant exploration of the intertwining of Britten and Dowland's music

The latest in the Wigmore Hall's Britten Series explored the interlinking between Britten's and Dowland's music. Tenor Allan Clayton and guitarist Sean Shibe performed songs by Dowland, with the remainder of the programme being Britten, the lute song from Britten's Gloriana and the guitar-accompanied Songs from the Chinese, two works inspired by Dowland Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland from viola player Timothy Ridout and pianist James Baillieu, Nocturnal after John Dowland from Sean Shibe, and finally the song cycles The Way to the Tomb and Winter Words from Allan Clayton and James Baillieu.

It was an interesting and illuminating programme, a chance to hear two of Britten's Dowland-inspired works alongside the music that inspired them, plus Britten writing for similar forces of voice and guitar, and all of it in superb performances.

Performing Dowland's songs is a knack, being able to scale the voice down to an intimate level whilst keeping the expressivity and bringing out the wonderful musical detail. Performing sitting alongside Sean Shibe, Clayton sang with a lovely sense of intimacy yet full of expressive detail. There was a relaxed sense of partnership between the two performers, with Clayton adding ornaments in later verses of the songs. Sean Shibe performed Preludium and Sleep, wayward thoughts as solos, and with he and Clayton giving us Come again, sweet love doth now invite, Away with these self-loving lads and Come, heavy sleep. It was an intense, magical experience and I do hope that we hear more lute songs from the two.
Hearing The Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex from Britten's Gloriana (in its version for voice and guitar) after John Dowland was a fascinating experience. Shibe and Clayton started it in just as intimate a manner as the earlier, and gradually allowed a sense of opening up to the drama before intimacy returned, but with the harmonies now a long way from Dowland.

Britten's Songs from the Chinese were written in 1957 for Peter Pears and Julian Bream, setting six of Arthur Waley's translations from the Chinese. A vivid account of The Big Chariot brought out the interesting detail in Britten's guitar writing and the way he used voice and guitar in striking combination. The haunting The Old Lute seemed to surround Clayton's intimate vocal line with a halo of detail in the guitar. The Autumn Wind featured vivid descriptive passages from Clayton, whilst the guitar didn't so much accompany as complement the voice. The Herd Boy was full of character, whilst Depression really showcased the colours and timbres of Clayton's voice, with a magically spare guitar complement. Finally, the brilliant Dance Song, complete with humour.

Viola player Timothy Ridout and pianist James Baillieu then gave us Britten's Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland, originally written in 1950. A series of variations on Dowland's song, Britten only states the theme at the end, thus leading us towards it. Ridout played with a lovely expressive veiled tone which combined with the sense of mystery that Baillieu brought to the piano part to create a haunted feeling for much of the piece. Whilst there were skittish moments, much seemed to evoked mysterious night music, until the final statement of Dowland's song came as a release.

Sean Shibe opened the second half with one of the great guitar pieces of the 20th century, Britten's Nocturnal after John Dowland, written in 1963 for Julian Bream.  Again, we start with variations, culminating in a passacaglia before reaching the Dowland. Shibe played with lovely tone and quiet intensity, creating a series of vivid sketches by turns eerie and magical in the variations, of this dark and sometimes edgy music. The inventive and virtuosic passacaglia drew us onward, with some remarkable colours and timbres from Shibe, with the Dowland song coming as something of a release.

The Way to the Tomb was a 1945 play by Ronald Duncan (librettist of The Rape of Lucretia), and we heard three of Britten's songs from his music for the play performed by Allan Clayton and James Baillieu. All three songs seemed to contain links to Britten's folk-song arrangements without ever bring quite folk-ish, with the evocative Evening, characterful Morning and rather sombre Night.

Finally, Clayton and Baillieu performed Britten's Thomas Hardy cycle, Winter Words which he and Pears premiered in 1953. At Day-Close in November had a nice rhapsodic freedom to the vocal line, whilst the piano in Midnight on the Great Western was full of imaginative colour in the piano, whilst gripping Clayton's performance was full of detail. Wagtail and Baby was perkily characterful but serious in intent, and The Little Old Table was a vivid delight. The Choirmaster's Burial was a beautifully judged yet vivid narrative. Proud Songsters was simply brilliant, in all senses of the word. At the Railway Station, upway featured some vivid storytelling from both Clayton and Baillieu. Before Life and After concluded with a sense of mystery and passion. Overall the two performers really captured the thoughtful bleakness of the cycle.

For an encore, all the performers returned to the stage and gave us an arrangement of Britten's folk-song arrangement I wonder as I wander.

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