John’s songs of Britten

English tenor John Mark Ainsley
English tenor John Mark Ainsley

JOHN Mark Ainsley comes to town tonight to sing Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams and songs by their contemporaries, representing something of a coup for Music in the Round.

The globally renowned English tenor, giving a one-off concert as part of MitR’s festival celebrating British music at the Crucible Studio, is arguably better known in mainland Europe than the land of his birth where he performs less frequently by comparison.

Hailing from Cheshire but largely brought up in Worcester (his father was an Anglican priest), Ainsley made his name singing Baroque music and Mozart – he has recordings of ten Handel oratorios to his name and can probably sing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni backwards by now!

Gravitating with equal success to operas by Britten, Janácek and Henze in more recent times, since the outset of his solo career in late 1980s he has been in almost constant demand from leading conductors, orchestras and opera houses for concert and operatic work on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tonight’s concert has a particular focus of celebration, the 100th birthday year of Britten and Ainsley will be performing three works by the composer, Canticles I and III separated by his Thomas Hardy song cycle, Winter Words.

The canticles, five of them written at intervals between 1947 and 1974 (with a 17-year cap between the third and fourth), are settings of poems but probably best described as mini-cantatas of a spiritual nature, as opposed to strictly religious.

Canticle I, for tenor and piano, sets the Renaissance poet Francis Quarles’ meditation on a line from the Song of Solomon, My beloved is mine and I am is, reflecting on man’s trust in god.

It was composed for a memorial concert for the Rev Dick Shepherd, founder of the Peace Pledge Union, in 1947.

Canticle III, for tenor, horn and piano, was written for a memorial concert in 1954, that of Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood who committed suicide following the death of a close friend.

It sets lines from Edith Sitwell’s The Canticle of the Rose, beginning at Still falls the rain, an allegory of the 1940 air raids on London with imagery of Christ’s Passion.

Penned a year earlier, Britten didn’t describe Winter Words as a song cycle but as ‘lyrics and ballads’, although there is cyclical unity in the music, while his uncanny perception of the eight trademark Hardy texts he chose to set make it one of his finest works for voice and piano.

Perhaps not quite as innately perceptive, one other major opus in the concert is Vaughan Williams’ superb song cycle On Wenlock Edge, six settings from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad for voice and piano quintet penned in 1909.

Among six separate items tonight is a song by George Butterworth who penned the best-known Shropshire Lad cycle – one that wasn’t in it, With rue my heart is laden.

There is also James MacMillan’s setting of William Soutar’s The Children (his anguished paean for them in the Spanish Civil War) which Britten set among his cycle of 12 poems by the Scottish socialist poet, Who Are These Children?

Other composers getting a look in are Ireland, Moeran (John Masefield’s Twilight), Bridge and Finzi.