Benjamin Britten may have written the odd masterpiece as a child – his Hymn to the Virgin was sketched out, more from boredom than faith, during a spell in the school sanatorium – but he learned the practicalities of composition in his early 20s, writing incidental music for documentary films and radio. A formative experience that gave him the technique to support his natural genius, it taught him how to make effective statements with economy of means. It forced him to be clear, concise and bold within strict time frames. And it’s just been the focus of a Britten on the Radio weekend at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, homing in on music that the BBC commissioned him to write for radio dramas in the 1930s and 40s – sometimes on a scale that seems spendthrift given the small budgets the Beeb makes available for such things nowadays.
An example was the score, written for performance by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, that accompanied a 1937 adaptation of King Arthur. As a piece of theatre it was limp: Britten apparently referred to it as “Uncle Arthur”. But the music was conceived with epic grandeur. And at Snape it got a rare modern performance, reworked into a suite by Paul Hindmarsh and played by the BBC Concert Orchestra as part of a programme that included Britten’s 1938 Piano Concerto: a piece whose revised version absorbed some of the Arthurian material that the composer didn’t want to waste.
The pianist here was Sunwook Kim, a player of phenomenal dexterity who took the opening movement at astounding speeds. It was impressive, though it didn’t make the case (which is worth making) for this glacial score to be regarded as a work of substance.
At the heart of the weekend, though, was the recreation of a Louis MacNeice play called The Dark Tower, broadcast in 1946, which reads now like period pretension, though it drew a brightly chiselled score from Britten who relished the direct references to music in the text and made the most of them.
It’s odd that this was music written after Peter Grimes (a watershed in the composer’s output) but revisiting the sound-world of the 1930s scores written before it – as if to say: this was my radio-drama mode, and still is. It was also odd to have this re-creation staged in Orford Church: the Britten Studio at Snape might have been more appropriate. But it made an atmospheric venue for a piece that, if it was about anything, was a quest-narrative: a latterday Pilgrim’s Progress for Freudian rather than spiritual ends. Robert Ziegler conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra with lucidity. And among the actors, Harry Lloyd had unassuming presence as the quasi-pilgrim.
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