Music: Revisiting Britten’s parable

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: January 17, 2018 Last modified: January 17, 2018

Curlew River

London, St Bartholomew the Great

Composed in 1964, Curlew River is the first of Benjamin Britten’s three Church Parables to a libretto by William Plomer, and based on a fifteenth century Japanese Noh play Sumigadawa by Motomasa. First performed in St Bartholomew’s Church, Orford, it was given again last week in St Bartholomew the Great in the city of London by the expert and enterprising new company, Ante Terminum Productions.

A true ensemble piece, Curlew River has no conductor but singers and players assume the lead, directing the flow of the music, which is sometimes unmeasured, resulting in an overlapping of textures. This means no two performances can ever sound the same.

The sound-world is challenging and uncompromising, layering clusters of tones and semi-tones and presaging works like Britten’s Third Quartet of a decade later. Ante Terminum’s first rate band of seven players was led by musical director Frederick Waxman at the organ, who clearly established the essential stasis of this piece, though there were times when the pace was perhaps a little too static, notably in the phrases of Gregorian chant which frame the piece.

The cast was strong throughout, singing in a simple setting, devoid of decoration, save for a few twigs. Tom Herring was a rich-voiced Abbot, and as the traveler Ivo Almond was appropriately still and well-paced. Protagonist, the Mad Woman is a drag role and Richard Robbins conveyed her distress with sublety and fagility.

Benjamin Bevan brought experience and superb vocal quality to his central performance as the Ferryman and the Spirit of the boy was effectively sung by treble James Bennett.

As the Ferryman rows his passengers downriver the illusion of movement is enhanced by the solidity of London’s oldest church. I can think of no better setting in which to stage this parable of grief, loss and ultimate renewal than this former Augustinian priory.

Colin Graham, who directed the original performance, left detailed instructional notes for future performers outlining gestures and movements influenced by Noh tradition. Director Peter Thickett wisely chooses not to follow these instructions too slavishly but to find the core of this strange and wonderful piece through a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul. An outstanding debut by Ante Terminum.

About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist