Chamber society offers eloquent homage to Britten's centennial

The flood tide of Benjamin Britten performances honoring the great British composer's centenary has barely begun. Both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Chamber Musicians are planning major observances beginning in the fall, and others are certain to follow as we approach Britten's actual 100th birthday in November.

On Wednesday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented an all-Britten program of their own to conclude their second residency season here.

Not all of the five instrumental and vocal chamber works on offer are from Britten's top drawer, but the very fact that each is so seldom performed made this an unmissable event. Unfortunately a fair number of audience members stayed home, thus denying themselves a rare opportunity to hear an unusual and absorbing program. It was performed with all the vitality, incisive attention to detail and spontaneity one has come to associate with the Chamber Music Society brand.

The concert, a kind of dry run for the Britten program the group's co-directors, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, and their colleagues are scheduled to present at New York's Alice Tully Hall Friday night, amounted to a thoughtfully planned survey of early and relatively late Britten pieces.

The four 1930s works on the first half date from Britten's school years at the Royal College of Music and the years immediately following his graduation, when his compositional style was coalescing and he was proclaiming his precocious talent to the world.

One of the most original products of his student years is the "Phantasy Quartet," Opus 2 (1932), an ingenious study in thematic transformation for oboe, violin, viola and cello Britten wrote when he was all of 18. Oboist James Austin Smith and colleagues from the Orion String Quartet made a convincing case for the music's being better known, the string players providing a sturdy frame for Smith's long-breathed lyrical flights.

The oboist and pianist Gloria Chien had fun with the "Two Insect Pieces" (1935), amusing bits of onomatopoeia depicting a hopping grasshopper and a buzzing wasp.

Both string pieces, the 1935 Suite for violin and piano and the 1936 Three Divertimenti for string quartet, gave the young composer a respite from the more serious pieces he was writing at the time. Todd Phillips, the second violin of the Orion ensemble, joined Chien in bringing out the quirky wit and skittish energy of the suite. The Orion players (including violinist Daniel Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom and cellist Timothy Eddy) savored the subtle ironies and bustling rhythmic activity of the divertimenti with deliciously deadpan swagger.

By 1952, when Britten wrote his "Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac," he had achieved international celebrity with his first opera, "Peter Grimes," and had settled into a stable domestic relationship with his life-partner and muse, tenor Peter Pears. The vocal piece was composed with Pears' unique voice in mind (Kathleen Ferrier took the alto part at the premiere), in this austere setting of the familiar biblical story of God's commanding the Jewish patriarch to sacrifice his son.

Here the tenor part was taken by Anthony Dean Griffey (who sang Mitch in Lyric Opera's recent performances of Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire"), whose big voice is very different in character from Pears' but absolutely commanding in its own way. Griffey's singing was crystalline of diction, full of vocal and expressive authority. Daniel Taylor merged his sweet countertenor with Griffey's voice to ethereal effect in the passages representing God's utterances. Chien furnished the spare, chordal piano accompaniment.

The canticle was paired with another Britten work inspired by a close colleague of the composer's – in the case of the 1961 Cello Sonata, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Britten went on to write an entire series of pieces for the great "Slava," including his Cello Symphony and three suites for unaccompanied cello. The sonata is finely crafted even if it doesn't speak to the dedicatee's unique musical personality as successfully as the later works.

Rostropovich and Britten may have been unmatched as collaborators in this piece (their recording proves them so), but Finckel and Han engaged with the music both intensely and elegantly, tossing off its technical difficulties as if they were child's play. The pointed cello figures and rippling piano figuration of the "Scherzo-Pizzicato" conveyed the right subdued humor, while the perpetual-motion finale capped things off with the cellist skittering blithely over the angular chords of the pianist.

jvonrhein@tribune.com | Twitter @jvonrhein

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