Britten The Little Sweep, etc

Author: 
Christopher Headington
Britten The Little Sweep, Gemini Variations, Children's CrusadeBritten The Little Sweep, Gemini Variations, Children's Crusade
Britten Noye's Fludde. The Golden VanityBritten Noye's Fludde. The Golden Vanity

BRITTEN The Little Sweep, etc

  • (The) Little Sweep
  • Gemini Variations (12 Variations and Fugue on an E
  • Children's Crusade (Kinderkreuzzug)
  • Noye's Fludde
  • (The) Golden Vanity

Two discs here contain music that Britten wrote for children, yet one must not imagine that they are cosy and (in the pejorative sense) childish. Many of Britten's friends thought that there remained much of the child in him, and this clearly comes out in the boisterous high spirits of some of this music. By and large, Noye's Fludde, The Golden Vanity and the (purely instrumental) Gemini Variations are happy works. Yet even here there are troubled elements. For all its nursery jollity, The Little Sweep portrays the ill-treatment of the pre-pubertal sweep boy Sam and one notices the comment of the good-hearted nursemaid Rowan, ''Cruel men will soil and blacken/Childish heart and childish mind!''. Sammy is saved (principally by children, be it noted), but the cabin-boy in The Golden Vanity lively vaudeville though the piece is, is allowed to drown. As for the children in Children's Crusade, they die in a wild winter of wartime Poland. In this shattering work by a lifelong pacifist, the children's search for peace is the central theme, and the same is true of the opera Owen Wingrave. This, of course is not a children's piece, yet the young man Owen who rejects a military career is also an innocent though in this case old enough to turn away from his family's tradition and declare, in the key aria of the work (track 5 on the second disc), ''In peace I have found my image''. And he, too, loses his life before the opera ends.
None the less, these works still make invigorating listening. Lord Clark, of ''Civilisation'' fame, once said that Noye's Fludde, a setting of the Chester miracle Play, had opened for him spiritual windows that had remained closed through years of churchgoing. This 1961 performance, recorded in Orford Church where it had its premiere three years before, is immensely vivid and one responds to the enthusiasm of the young singers and instrumentalists, who include buglers and handbell ringers as well as the chorus of animals who go into the ark. There are inevitably rough edges in the singing and playing, but the spirit is there in abundance. The same is true of The Golden Vanity, and although there's more conscious vocal skill in the singing of the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir, in this performance with Britten at the piano it never gets in the way of the presentation, which bubbles with life. These boys and their conductor Russell Burgess (with Britten as second conductor) also perform Children's Crusade, and the two works were coupled together in 1970. In the following year I was with Britten looking at Sidney Nolan's drawings inspired by this music, and he told me how powerful he thought the performance and that he had had difficulty in notating the piece because of its rhythmic freedom. Incidentally, Adrian Thompson, now a well-known tenor, performs as a treble in both these works.
The Little Sweep also gets a vivid performance and this, again, was a first recording. It hasn't worn as well as other Britten works, partly because the libretto is middle class and the language twee, as when the children sing of Sammy ''Poor young boy! He's just a baby!/Weak with toil and wan with strain''. Yet one can forget that when listening to music that mostly remains delightfully fresh, and even join in the audience songs if one has a mind. On this same disc, the Gemini Variations, written for two Hungarian boys whose charming request won Britten over, and using flute and violin as well as piano duet, is less striking. The performance is nothing special either nor is the 1966 recording. But Britten enthusiasts will want this 15-minute piece. It is not otherwise available.
Nor are The Poet's Echo and the Six Holderlin fragments. The former was written for these celebrated Russian artists, who recorded it in 1968 at The Maltings in Snape: so this is an authoritative performance of this Pushkin cycle, although I confess that Vishnevskaya's voice appeals to me less than it did to the composer. The Six Holderlin fragments, written a few years before, are fine music and the account by Pears and Britten is all that one may expect.
Which leaves Owen Wingrave. Listening to it again, I don't think that it gives us Britten at his very best and the libretto seems oddly dated in a way that that of another James opera, The turn of the screw, doesn't, although the librettist was again Myfanwy Piper. Nevertheless, it remains the work of a master. The performance under the composer has a convincing Owen in Benjamin Luxon and a strong cast generally, while the 1970 sound is both immediate and pleasing.'

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