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Music Review

At TMC, the poetic currents of ‘Curlew River’

Isaiah Bell (top right) as the Madwoman and the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows performing “Curlew River” at Tanglewood.

Hilary Scott

Isaiah Bell (top right) as the Madwoman and the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows performing “Curlew River” at Tanglewood.

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.

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Earlier this summer I caught a performance of “Curlew River” in Orford Church in Suffolk, England, where it received its premiere in 1964 as part of Britten’s own Aldeburgh Festival. It was a thrill to hear the music in such an evocative and historically resonant space, but the pious interpretation by director Frederic Wake-Walker overemphasized the work’s debts to the gestural language of the medieval Japanese theater, creating a halting flow that seemed to work against the spirit of the music. What a wonderful relief it was then to attend Mark Morris’s brilliant new staging at Ozawa Hall on Thursday night, full of air and light, motion and heart. It was presented as the first half of a double bill, followed by Morris’s well-known 1989 version of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”

In “Curlew River,” the story the monks enact after their opening plainchant tells of a mysterious Madwoman, who has lost her sanity in grief for her vanished son, taken by a stranger a year ago. She encounters a Traveller and a Ferryman, whom she beseeches to bring her across the river. Pilgrims are gathering there at the revered gravesite of a young boy. The Madwoman eventually crosses the river, and realizes it is her own son who lies buried. His spirit climactically appears in a vision, and her grief is quieted. The parable concludes with the monks returning to their original plainchant.

Morris honors the work’s Noh roots in the minimalist feel of his staging; the set and props are extremely spare, and all is white. But the choreography Morris devised for the vocal fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center also telegraphs some of the worldly sensuality of this music. Britten’s score is a marvel of economy, written for just a handful of instruments — flute/piccolo, drums, horn, viola, double bass, harp, and organ — playing without a conductor. The performances on Thursday were first-rate from top to bottom, especially the singing of the three principals, with Isaiah Bell as the Madwoman, Edward Nelson as the Ferryman, and David Tinervia as the Traveller.

William Plomer’s original libretto has the monks recess from the stage en masse after their parable has run its course, but Morris here leaves the Madwoman in character, kneeling alone at her son’s grave. A simple poetic hand gesture seals the work, and carries the power of this staging: its feel for the mysterious pairing of formal discipline and emotional catharsis that is at the core of “Curlew River.”

The following night the action shifted to the Koussevitzky Music Shed, where the main event was the first Tanglewood performance of Poulenc’s “Stabat Mater.” The BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus were conducted by Stephane Deneve, who led with missionary zeal and a sure hand for the shaping of instrumental textures. (British soprano Lucy Crowe was the excellent soloist.)

The evening also included Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Lars Vogt as soloist. His coolly delivered and inward-drawing account contrasted sharply with the outward exuberance of Saturday night’s piano soloist, Lang Lang, even though the latter was, by his own standards, fairly buttoned-down on this occasion. Lang’s more modestly probing reading of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto seemed to be chasing tonal nuance over outwardly splashy effect but his bravura technique nonetheless brought down the house. He responded with an encore, the Paganini-Liszt “La Campanella,” played with an uncommon degree of transparency and poise.

It was Charles Dutoit on the podium both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, and the programs were each anchored by a sweeping account of an iconic score written for the Ballets Russes: Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” respectively. The latter in particular received an electrifying performance, full of a raw rhythmic vitality. Sunday’s soloist was Yo-Yo Ma, playing the much-loved Dvorak Cello Concerto. A certain generosity of spirit has always been a hallmark of Ma’s performances, but he seemed to surpass himself on Sunday, playing with a depth of feeling and nobility of tone that gathered in intensity through the work’s final pages, and made this feel like anything but another routine performance of a cello warhorse. An enormous crowd in the Shed and on the lawn made its appreciation known.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.
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