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Music Review

Britten’s poetic vocal works, in centenary tribute

Tenor Nicholas Phan joined the Marsh Chapel Collegium for an all-Benjamin Britten program on Saturday. Facecollective/Library Research

It’s no secret that the classical music world leans heavily on composer anniversaries as a way of organizing its programming. The windfall of attention received by any one composer, however, can have varying effects. Few would expect this year’s bicentenary celebrations of Wagner and Verdi, for instance, to yield major shifts in their reputations, as they already reside at the very heart of the operatic pantheon. Yet this is also the year when Benjamin Britten would have turned 100, and the Britten centenary is poised, in a way, to be more impactful on the fortunes of a composer whose music is treasured by many connoisseurs but is still little-known by many more casual concertgoers.

The music itself will be programmed in abundance around the world this year, and Boston will take part in the festivities, too. The BSO recently programmed the Violin Concerto, New England Conservatory’s opera department is currently performing “The Turn of the Screw,” and Boston University will soon take on “Owen Wingrave” (Feb. 21-24). In the meantime, BU’s Marsh Chapel is mounting its own centennial tribute with a series of concerts that began auspiciously on Saturday night, with the young rising tenor Nicholas Phan joining the Marsh Chapel Collegium under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett for an all-Britten program.


Phan, 34, has made Britten’s music one of his calling cards, with two all-Britten recordings and a steady stream of live performances. Saturday’s program placed at its center two of the composer’s major vocal works: the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and the Nocturne.

Both scores, separated by over a decade, were written for Britten’s partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and both treat the subject of night, in its various manifestations. From his first entrance in the Serenade, following hornist Clark Matthews’s regal call to order in the Prologue, Phan sang with an appealing mix of confidence, pathos, tonal sweetness, and vocal flexibility. Britten here sets poetry by Tennyson, Blake, Keats, and others, and Phan took the measure of each movement, finding the requisite weightless quality for the Pastoral, turning boldly declamatory for the later invocation of a bugle and its “wild echoes flying,” and summoning an affecting tone of vulnerability in the Dirge.


Britten’s exquisite Nocturne is, by contrast, a more harmonically adventurous work, made up of linked settings of poetry on the themes of sleep and dreaming. “It won’t be madly popular because it is the strangest & remotest thing,” Britten once conceded in a letter, before adding, “but then dreams are strange and remote.” He also aptly called it “one of my best and most personal works.” A succession of solo instruments rises up from the small orchestra to partner the tenor in virtuosic obbligato turns. Phan once again illuminated the poetry (here by Wilfred Owen, Wordsworth, Keats, Shakespeare, and others) with a thoughtful musicality and liquid phrasing.

On the podium Jarrett proved a sensitive accompanist and the Marsh Chapel Collegium, an ensemble made up of both established local freelancers and current BU students, played with care and character. Between the two vocal works, the orchestra took its own turn in the spotlight with a spirited account of the “Simple Symphony.”

Saturday’s closing selection was “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.” That this beguiling movement, originally conceived as part of the Serenade, was ultimately left out of the finished score says much about the composer’s lofty standards as well as his intuitive gift for sensing the proper weighting of a work’s structure. In this context it served as a generous parting gift.


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