The new inspired by the old

The concert began with tenor Mark Padmore singing unaccompanied  from on high John Dowland’s If my complaints could passions move, which the programme tells me depicts “the melancholy of unrequited love typical of music from the Elizabethan era.” Immediately he finished the English Chamber Orchestra, but with only a few strings, launched into Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae with Lawrence Power playing the lead viola part. Power has the right name: he played with remarkable power, seemingly sent to another place by the music.

John [Gillies] and I were sat in the middle seats in the front row, a few feet from Power. I’m listening to the music now (for the third time this morning), and it’s sad and evocative. But even with my world class stereo system the recorded music has little of the power of it being played live just a few feet from me. Partly, perhaps mostly, it’s because I’m not concentrating in the same way. But the quality of the sound is different: at the concert I could feel it physically, and I was very conscious of the gut in the strings: listening this morning it’s not a physical experience, and I’m much less conscious of the guttiness of the strings.

The theme of the concert was reflections, how modern English composers (Britten, Tippett, and Woolrich) were inspired by earlier composers (Dowland, Corelli, and Monteverdi). The last piece, Britten’s Nocturne for tenor, seven obligato instruments and strings, was inspired not by music but by poetry–by Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shakespeare). Indeed, the concert was so well put together that I’m emulating it on a Sonos playlist.

Tippett was “inspired” by Corelli simply because he was commissioned to compose Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli  to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Corelli’s birth.  Yet the piece is regarded as a masterpiece, illustrating how craft and graft can overreach inspiration. The orchestra cleverly moved from playing the Corelli straight into the Tippett, so that it took both John, a more discriminating and knowledgeable listener than me, and me a few minute to realise that it was now the Tippett. It’s a fine, dangerous, but readily accessible piece.

Perhaps the biggest discovery of the evening was John Woolrich’s Ulysses awakes, a “reimagining” of an aria from Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria sung by Ulysses as he awakes on the shores of his homeland. Both of us became immersed in the piece. I can’t find the piece on Napster, but I have found it on Youtube (the result being a depressingly thin sound). Woolrich, a short, fat man slightly younger than us, was there. Does he, I wondered, make enough money as a composer to live? I doubt it, and, as John said, the skilled musicians were probably on £20 000 a year. I, with no hard skills whatsoever, have earnt much more. Something’s wrong.

The last piece was Britten’s setting to the poems. Before the piece was played Power told us that the night is a recurrent theme in Britten’s music and Padmore told us that we should look out for the “Bad Benny” that Auden told Britten in a letter to be sure not to suppress. Padmore sang the words clearly, but inevitably the music took centre stage. I regretted that the programme didn’t include the poems, but probably it’s good that it didn’t: if I’d read the words while listening to the music that first time it would, I fear, have diminished my experience of the music. And now I have the joy of tracking down the poems, at least one of which –Tennyson’s The Kraken–I do know. I have tracked down the first, Shelley’s poem, and I detect the “Bad Benny,” sleeping on the lips of his lover Peter Pears when homosexuality was illegal and feeding on “ariel kisses.”

On a poet’s lips I slept

Dreaming like a love-adept

In the sound his breathing kept;

Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,

But feeds on the aerial kisses

Of shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses.

He will watch from dawn to gloom

The lake-reflected sun illume

The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,

Nor heed nor see what things they be;

But from these create he can

Forms more real than living man,

Nurslings of immortality!

One of these awakened me,

And I sped to succour thee.

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