Friday, December 26, 2014

Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten - McPhee: Balinese Ceremonial Music (*McPhee and Britten, pianos) - Tabuh-Tabuhan - Britten: Suite from the ballet "The Prince of the Pagodas" - BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

As I have already posted and written about Colin McPhee's wonderful toccata for two pianos and orchestra "Tabuh-Tabuhan" in the past, I will let listeners refer to the album notes for any extra details. This is a recording of historical significance, as McPhee's "Balinese Ceremonial Music" for two pianos is here played by two rather able pianists- Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten, recorded in 1941. The other works on this disc are digital and with the excellent Chandos sonics one would expect. Benjamin Britten's Suite from "The Prince of the Pagodas" will likely be something of a surprise for listeners who are only familiar with Britten's staples such as the "War Requiem", "Simple Symphony", "Peter Grimes", and so on.. The coupling of these two composers is of no coincidence once the historic details are known and the music itself is heard and felt. It was in January of 1956 that Britten travelled to Bali. Like McPhee, he too was bowled over by the island’s 'remarkable culture' and especially its gamelan tradition, which in turn spurred him to complete his ballet "The Prince of the Pagodas" (a Sadler’s Wells commission with which he had become rather bogged down). This recording gives us an effective sequence devised in 1997 by Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke. Lasting 51 minutes, it is cast in six parts, the fourth of which includes a generous helping of the gamelan-inspired material for "Pagoda-Land" missing from the composer-approved concert suite assembled by Norman Del Mar in 1963. This is indeed quite the special Britten opus, and it's a great listening experience from start to finish to boot.

By the summer of 1939, Benjamin Britten arrived in New York. After nearly three months in Canada (including a mosquito-ridden June in the Laurentians), Britten journeyed southward, to make his mark on America. He quickly fell for the New World, at many points claiming he would take citizenship and remain in the US for the rest of his life. The man who became the iconic British composer of the 20th century did not remain in the United States: he sailed home for England in April of 1942. In the early days of his New York residency he encountered Canadian expat Colin McPhee. Fresh from a seven-year stay on the island of Bali, McPhee was keen to peddle the exotic secrets of Balinese music and found a proselyte in Britten. Their friendship had lasting effects on both, especially on Britten. It was through Colin McPhee’s connection to Bali and its tantalizing musical and dance culture that Benjamin Britten came to cultivate his own interest and eventual study of Balinese materials, as he later integrated them into some of his works. Britten’s taste for Bali and the significant role it formed in his creative consciousness is a story unto itself, but in April of 1941 Britten and McPhee entered a recording studio in New York City to put down five of McPhee’s Balinese transcriptions for two pianos. The result, a six-record set entitled "The Music of Bali" released by Schirmer in May 1941, was extraordinary: lucid and tonal, sensual glimmers of an ancient tropical paradise were realized on an instrument so common to domestic life in the West. It was the piano, as plain as island rain. 

Benjamin Britten came to remember his connection with Colin McPhee as circumspect. In Britten’s letters we learn very little of the relationship between these two composers, even though the British composer performed McPhee’s music at Wigmore Hall in March of 1944. But based on the fact that Britten and McPhee played one another’s music, concertized a handful of times and recorded together, we can assume that these two held at least a mutual musical admiration and respect for one another. The encounter had a permanent effect on the English composer, integrated keenly into the composer’s own modernist language. Britten learned from McPhee, but did McPhee learn from Britten? Probably not so much. But, then again, Britten was a reluctant partner, at first. The Balinese-inspired album the two composers recorded in the early years of the war included five pieces for two pianos, as well as some music for flute and piano. McPhee and Britten had already performed the transcriptions together in public before entering the recording studio, a fact that surely offered McPhee further incentive to choose Britten as his recording partner. On Britten’s score of McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music, McPhee’s inscription reads: "To Ben-hoping he will find something in this music, after all. Colin. April, 1940."

McPhee must have needed a player with a dual talent for this recording: both a composer and a pianist (like himself). Britten fit the bill. There is intricate, seductive rhythm in this music whose origins lay far off in a hazy, paradisiacal land. McPhee knew that understanding such music-in structure, melody, harmony, timbre and rhythm-needed the mind and hands of a composer-pianist.
The pianism displayed on this record is thoughtfully poised and intuitively musical. McPhee’s transcriptions come so very close to the original Balinese, (perhaps as close as is possible on western instruments), that they offer a faithful and wondrous rendition of the gamelan ambience: vivid sound worlds of gleaming counterpoint and rich, bright harmonies. The lustrous sonorities created by McPhee and Britten’s pianos lure the listener in to a magical sphere, irresistible and sincere. Britten understood the subtleties of gentle melody, of elegant figuration, and of formal design suffused with tropical light. The music sounds just like it was recorded-in the 1940's. Needless to say however, it's performance cannot be equalled.



Toon van Dijk said...

Happy New Year and best wishes for a prosperious 2015.
Many thanks and regards from The Netherlands.
Veel dank en groeten uit Nederland.

Tzadik said...

Hi there Toon and thank you, all the best wishes for the new year to you too! -What part of Holland are you from? I have a friend in Utrecht...

danny said...

Great great great post. Thank you!