The Week Ahead: Benjamin Britten Centenary

This Friday marks what would have been the 100th birthday of composer Benjamin Britten. As a result, this week is the culmination of the events commemorating this great figure. Of these, my concert of the week is Steven Isserlis (cello) and Connie Shih (piano) – Britten, Bridge and Prokofiev (Sat Nov 23rd, 8pm, Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda’s College). This programme showcases the superb music that Britten wrote for Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich, in the form of the Sonata in C and the Solo Cello Suite no. 3. The suite, a moving meditation on life and death, promises to be a particular highlight. The collaboration between the Russian cellist and the English composer/pianist was a long and fruitful one that yielded both some of Britten’s best instrumental works and some superb performances. The individual brilliance and mutual understanding of these two great friends in their version of the Schubert ‘Arpegionne’ Sonata makes it one of my favourite recordings. Legend has it that this recording was played to Rostropovich in the depths of the illness from which he died in 2007 and that, although he was unconscious, a tear slid down his cheek.

These works by Britten are complemented by music for the cello by his teacher, Frank Bridge, and works by Rostropovich’s fellow Russian, Sergei Prokofiev. Superb playing is guaranteed from Steven Isserlis, the patron of St Hilda’s superb concert space, who is arguably walking in the footsteps of the building’s dedicatee Jacqueline du Pré as one of the foremost British cellists of his generation.

Britten in Oxford has been running events to celebrate the life, works and legacy of a musician described by its Artistic Director, conductor Nicholas Cleobury, as “the iconic and leading British composer … of the twentieth century”. These events culminate this week with the Centenary Birthday Concert: Nicholas Cleobury (conductor), Sophie Bevan (soprano) and the English Chamber Orchestra (Fri Nov 22nd, 7:30pm, Sheldonian Theatre). Orchestral music by Britten, including the famous Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, is paired with works by three composers particularly associated him: Purcell, Mozart and Mahler. These works will be performed by the English Chamber Orchestra, who enjoyed strong links with Britten as a conductor.

Friday the 22nd is notable for a number of reasons beyond the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth; it is also St Cecilia’s Day (the patron saint of music) and the 50th anniversary of the deaths of writer C.S. Lewis, philosopher Auldous Huxley, and American president John F. Kennedy. This remarkable confluence of anniversaries is brought together in Requiem ’63: Choir of St Michael at the North Gate and Tom Hammond-Davies (conductor) (Fri Nov 22nd, 8pm, Exeter College Chapel). As well as music by J.S. Bach, the choir will perform Britten’s joyous Hymn to Saint Cecilia and Herbert Howell’s moving Take him, earth, for cherishing, written for the memorial service of President Kennedy. Another chance to hear Hymn to Saint Cecilia comes earlier in the same evening, with Evensong at New College (Fri Nov 22nd, 6:15pm, New College Chapel). On Thursday (also 6:15pm), New College Choir will also be performing Britten’s Missa brevis for boy trebles. Both works have recently been released in an excellent recording by New College Choir and director Edward Higginbottom, so these services are worth catching.

Inside Sound ⓒ Pitt Rivers Museum
Inside Sound. Image: Pitt Rivers Museum

If you are looking for a way of escaping all the Britten-themed festivities on Friday, then look no further than Inside Sound: Interactive Rainforest Soundscapes (Fri Nov 22nd, 7pm-11pm, Pitt Rivers Museum). The Pitt Rivers museum will be enveloped in the sounds of the Central African Rainforest and its communities. Visitors will walk around the museum by torchlight, visiting iPad stations that allow them to interact with the soundscape they inhabit. This fascinating event forms part of a range of exciting events in the celebration of the switching on of the Christmas lights in Oxford.

G. Masters

For more information regarding the concerts featured this week, please visit the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, Music at Oxford, and Pitt Rivers websites. 

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