The Week Ahead: Benjamin Britten – Stage, Screen and Song

The centenary anniversary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76) is celebrated in several exciting events this week. Friday evening will see an exciting operatic double bill: Nova Music Opera – Benjamin Britten, Curlew River and Sally Beamish, Hagar in the Wilderness (Fri 25th, 7:30pm, St John the Evangelist). Britten’s opera combines the influence of his encounters with Japanese Noh theatre in the 1950s with Christian imagery. This work – the first and arguably the most striking of his three “church parables” – is specifically designed to be performed in a church space. St John the Evangelist (Iffley Road) should be an ideal setting for its stark musical textures and arresting visual design. This is paired with a new work by Sally BeamishHagar in the Wilderness, depicting the Old Testament story of Hagar and Abraham. An exciting prospect from the small Nova Music Opera company, brainchild of conductor George Vass. Earlier on Friday is the chance to catch a new film about Britten, Tony Palmer’s Nocturne (Fri 25th, 3:15pm, Phoenix Picture House). The film, which explores Britten’s uneasy relationship with the world around him, will be introduced by Tony Palmer himself, who has made several films about the composer.

In 2012, tenor Toby Spence, a former choral scholar at New College, underwent an operation for recently diagnosed thyroid cancer – a terrifying prospect for anyone, let alone a singer. His recovery since then has been remarkable, recently appearing in the Royal Opera House’s production of Britten’s opera Gloriana. Praise for his superb individual performance, unlike the mixed if not mostly positive reception of the production as a whole, was unanimous. Britten is the focus of his recital for the Oxford Lieder Festival, which is my concert of the week: Toby Spence (tenor) and Julian Milford (piano) – Britten, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and songs by Purcell, Beethoven and Brahms (Weds 23rd, 8pm, Holywell Music Room). Spence’s performance as the Earl of Essex in Gloriana this summer showed that he is back to his considerable best and so this event promises a great deal. The first half will consist of a selection of short songs, including Britten’s gorgeous folksong setting “At the mid hour or night” and the sublime “An evening hymn” by Henry Purcell, a composer who was a constant source of inspiration for twentieth-century English composers such as Britten and his contemporary Michael Tippett. Spence will sing the song cycle The Holy Sonnets of John after the interval. This wonderful set of songs is comprised of settings of some of Donne’s most profound reflections on the human condition, including the famous ‘Death, be not proud’: “Death, be not proud though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so … One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

G. Masters

For more information about the Oxford Lieder Festival, please visit their website; more details of concerts at St John’s are available here.

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