LENOX — Some serious momentum has gathered around the music of Benjamin Britten during his current centenary year, bringing forward not just multiple performances of iconic works like “Peter Grimes” and the “War Requiem,” but also occasioning many smaller-scale encounters with more seldom-heard pieces such as his three church parables. Written in the mid-1960s, the parables were first inspired by the composer’s visit to Japan roughly a decade earlier, during which he was deeply moved by a performance of a 15th-century Noh play titled “Sumidagawa.” As Britten later recalled, “The deep solemnity and selflessness of the acting, the perfect shaping of the drama . . . coupled with the strength and universality of the stories are something which every Western artist can learn from.”
He attempted to do just that in “Curlew River,” the first of the three parables, all of which are essentially stylized mini-operas that frame their individual stories by presenting them as reenactments by a group of monks. Each opera begins with the monks singing a processional plainchant from which Britten ingeniously derives much of the melodic material for the work as a whole.