Review: O Soothest Sleep – Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings by The Opera People
Poetic, musical musings on the serenity and terror of the night.
The sun may still have been out as we made our way into the Esplanade Concert Hall for The Opera People and Orchestra of Music Makers’ concert, but as we sat in the balcony and the performance began, it felt like the night was beginning to wash over us.
Conducted by Seow Yibin, the concert opened with the Edward Elgar’s instrumental Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47, as performed by members of Orchestra of Music Makers. Heavily inspired by the baroque era, the piece runs for about 15 minutes, and begins in grand fashion as the strings come together and lead in this musical image of an elegant evening in a ballroom. One imagines guests dancing as the music rises and falls, changing partners as a myriad of emotions, from joy to jealousy, depression to hope, characterise the ongoings of the night. With the range of tempos and volumes, multiple themes and motifs, conductor Seow does well to keep the orchestra in check, with the musicians working together to remain in sync and harmonious. Towards the 11-minute mark, the violins reach a musical climax as the tempo peaks to a fever pitch in a fugue, before it all comes back to a calmer, more soothing melody, as if the night’s stormy emotions have passed. The piece comes to an end, and the musicians give each other friendly elbow bumps, as we segue into the next segment.
The Opera People’s Jonathan Charles Tay then comes onstage, alongside horn player Alexander Oon, as we move into the second part of the programme: Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31. A song cycle composed as a conversation between voice and horn, the serenade comprises eight movements, each taking inspiration from the poetry of William Blake, John Keats and Alfred Tennyson, among others. Alexander Oon sets the tone for the piece in the prologue on the French horn, displaying immense control over his breath, as he holds notes and gracefully moves between moods, from the grand to the reflective.
The vocal segments then begin with Charles Cotton’s ‘The Evening Quatrains’, calling an end to the day as the sun sets and life begins to settle down. But in Lord Tennyson’s ‘Blow, Bugle, Blow’, the nocturne almost heralds the coming of night with its sudden shift in tone, and as announced by Jonathan Charles Tay’s clear, sonorous tenor vocals, before William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’, elegiac and mournful in its darkness, as aided by the strings.
The 15th century ‘Lyke-Wake Dirge’ then seems to call the audience to attention, as it becomes almost military and war-like in its beat. Jonathan Charles Tay’s voice never falters, and catches each word clearly, before moving into the challenging ‘Hymn to Diana’ by Ben Johnson. Alexander Oon has a particularly difficult job here as the horn as it lilts, going up and down in volume, with rapid, jaunty notes dedicated to this woman, while Jonathan’s voice hangs and drags words like ‘excellently’ to aural joy. More of his prowess is displayed in the final vocal piece of the performance, John Keats’ ‘To Sleep’, which brings in the strings as he shows off his operatic power, allowing his voice to soar as he holds his notes, the orchestra rising as he pushes his voice to their limits.
O Soothest Sleep results in a performance that gives audiences a comprehensive, artistic interpretation of a wild night in all its facets, from lullaby to musical showstopper, glorious in every movement and well-performed in spite of being such a challenging score to play, with its twists and turns. As the Epilogue brings to piece to a close with a horn solo, it is as if the night is brought to a close, and dawn is breaking. Yet as we leave the concert hall, we see that the sun has set, and we are ready to embrace the darkness that has fallen over our city, and fall in love again with the nocturnal sounds of the evening.
O Soothest Sleep – Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings played on 5th December 2020 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. For more information on the Esplanade’s Voices – A Festival of Song, visit their website here