Today's Classical Music Video

Friday, July 2, 2010

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten

Around this time of year, when the Aldeburgh Festival is in full swing, I always think of Britten and Pears and the unique festival they created. I have always admired Britten and Pears for their enormous contribution to the music and the musical life of the Twentieth Century. I first heard Pears - without Britten - at a concert at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. It must have been about 1958. Pear's collaborator on that occasion was Julian Bream. They did a programme of Elizabethan music and Bream played the lute. It was a revelation to me to hear such great music that was mostly unknown to me at the time and performed with such unassuming mastery.
Later, in 1969, I had the pleasure to visit the Aldeburgh Festival - in fact, my wife and I rented a house for the duration of the festival - and experienced more revelations almost daily for two weeks. That was a traumatic year for the festival. The original Maltings concert hall burned down just before the festival started and Pears and Britten were forced to improvise. Many festival concerts were given in churches anyway but many more had to be moved to various churches that year, even a fully-staged production of Mozart's opera Idomeneo conducted by Britten. As I recall, not a single concert was cancelled and the entire community dug deep to help in any way it could.
This video captures Pears and Britten in their prime, and in one of Britten's incomparable folk song arrangements, O Waly, Waly. Note how the vocal part is simply a melody repeated over and over, yet Pears manages to plumb the meaning of the words for a vast range of emotion. Britten's piano part is a series of chords, but ever so subtley varied over the course of the song. Britten always got to the heart of the matter with the most extraordinary economy of means.
- Paul E. Robinson



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