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Taut Austere Passion

Music with a Britten and Auden connection,
performed by John Lofthouse and Stephen Rose,
and reviewed by MALCOLM MILLER


Two new settings of Auden's poetry formed the highlight of a centenary concert given at St Pancras Church as part of the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music on 15 May 2007 by John Lofthouse, baritone and Stephen Rose, piano. The concert's subtitle, Britten & Auden, made it seem odd that there was only one song setting by Britten of Auden's poetry on the programme, and one in the encore! Yet in a sense it reflected well on both, since the chosen Britten was the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, from 1965, a fruitful period of the mature Britten's oeuvre, in contrast to the earlier youthful and even innocent phase of the 1930s when he collaborated with the poet on film and theatre music and composed most of the well known Auden settings such as On this Island. Similarly, while the Auden centenary includes many a performance of Auden settings by Britten, Berkeley, Rorem, Lutyens, Bainbridge and so on (some of which were intended to feature here, as mentioned in the Festival brochure), instead we heard several unfamiliar settings, including two from the fifties, by David Ryott and two world premières, by Timothy Watts and Francis Pott, thus highlighting Auden's rich reception history and paying tribute to his continuing legacy.

John Lofthouse, currently at the National Opera Studio, is a promising baritone with a rich and well focused projection, and the Britten Blake songs benefited from his overall seriousness of approach and technical command. Yet despite the quality of his enunciation and some compelling characterisation, there was a degree of plasticity, shading and dynamic variety missing in all the songs, that made them slightly earthbound. One would have liked a bit more lightness and even wit in the proverbs that form promenade-like links from one song to the next. The Chimney Sweep was vividly dramatized, as was the darker vigour of A Poison Tree, which reached its climaxes with poignant intensity, each sinewy line unfurling more and more dissonance with feline fecundity and thus throwing into relief the leaping rhythms of The Tyger, propelled with fiery drama. Most effective perhaps was The Fly, with its tremulous oscillating piano ostinato and elusive, much more delicate vocal melody, which brought out more translucency in Lofthouse's timbre. The long breathed crescendos of Ah, Sun-flower and the lyrical breadth of Every nigh and every morn hovering over Stephen Rose's steady, steely piano pacing maintained the sense of style to conclude the cycle with taut austere passion.

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Copyright © 17 May 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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