Stewart’s balancing act to ensure fitting tribute

Stewart Campbell, University of Sheffield concerts manager
Stewart Campbell, University of Sheffield concerts manager

The man behind Sheffield’s Benjamin Britten centenary festival adds his own voice to the celebrations. Bernard Lee reports

MEET tenor Stewart Campbell, motivator, coordinator and director of the UK’s largest Benjamin Britten centenary celebration this year, A Boy Was Born – here, in Sheffield!

This Friday lunchtime he offers one his own contributions to the festival when he performs Britten’s Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente and Canticle No 1, plus Purcell and Richard Strauss, with pianist Jonathan Gooing at Upper Chapel on Norfolk Street.

Campbell came to read music at Sheffield University ten years ago when he also gained a scholarship at Sheffield Cathedral where he still sings as a Songman.

He also manages the various series of concerts at the university and his “preoccupation with Britten’s music” began as a boy chorister in his home town of Southampton.

“One of my first concerts as a soloist was Ceremony of Carols,” he recalls. “One of the first recordings I bought was of Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which also set off a lifelong obsession with Purcell.

“I remember at sixth-form college going to see Peter Grimes, the second opera I ever saw and being completely mesmerised.”

The first, Janácek’s Jenufa, similarly stunned him and the Czech composer’s Diary of One Who Disappeared is included in his next A Boy Was Born concert on June 28. Campbell says his main criterion in planning the festival was maintaining balance.

“Obviously, there is so much material for voice, I wanted to ensure different aspects of this repertoire were examined, including Britten as a sophisticated admirer of poetry as well as an excellent interpreter of language.”

Hence, with “the English song cycles fairly well covered,” his invitation to celebrated soprano Joan Rodgers to perform the (Russian) Poet’s Echo on March 12, for example, while the composer’s excursion into German dictated his choice of the Six (Friedrich) Hölderlin Fragments from 1958.

“The work is overshadowed by some of the other cycles, although Britten described it much later in an interview as ‘probably my best vocal work so far’.

“The cycle explores many of his preoccupations, an abhorrence towards innocence corrupted, a prolonging to celebrate and relive the joys of childhood, the concept of mortality, the inevitability of old age and the end of life.”

Three Purcell items are Sweeter than Roses, his less-known “much more embellished” third setting of If Music Be the Food of Love and the even lesser known Job’s Curse, “an absolute gem!” to words from the Book of Job.

“The text explores one of the most profound questions we often ask in our lives, the difficulty of understanding why an allegedly all-powerful God allows so much suffering,” says the singer.

Said by Britten to have been modelled on Purcell’s Divine Hymn, his Canticle I is a setting of a paraphrase of the Song of Solomon by the 17th century poet Francis Quarles.

It was written for and to some extent tailored to the unique tenor voice of his then (1947) companion in life Peter Pears and the Strauss work, his four Op 27 Lieder (including Cäcile and Morgen), were penned with the soprano voice of his imminent wife in mind.

“I liked the parallel; singers as a muse for vocal composition,” says Campbell.