World premiere of version
Snape Maltings Concert Hall (3.00 pm), Aldeburgh
Nicky Spence, tenor / London Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner
Winter Words has long been my favourite of Britten's song-cycles with piano: he and Hardy seem made for each other; the affinity with nature – the seasons from springtime's new birds to the autumn trees and the Choirmaster’s burial at the dead of winter; the feeling for humanity whether manifest in the little old table, the foundling boy on the train, the vignette with convict, policeman and boy with violin – and of course the Choirmaster again, the cycle's centrepiece. Hardy's satire too – baby and wagtail – also suits: and above all the bruised pessimism of the closing number with its cry for release from the agonies of consciousness, whose opening words, "a time there was" gave the title to Britten's deeply touching late work based upon English folksongs. (I've mentioned all eight numbers in the set, one of them twice!)
This instrumentation aims to enhance with fidelity the piano-originals, and possibly to capture some resonance of the composer's incomparable playing. The "violin"-part in the Convict cameo is perfectly conceived for the violin – imagine it on a clarinet or a cornet! – though here I have discretely amplified the sound with touches of tutti violins and tuned percussion. The marimba is used earlier to depict the wagtail, the xylophone helps evoke the creaking little table, the marimba returns to add a gentle halo to the voice-line in the last song. Transparancy is the aim throughout in what must be called an act of ardent hommage.
Robin Holloway, 2021
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.