Anyone craving an antidote to the Wagner marathon at the Proms could look no further than the third in the Proms Chamber Music series at Cadogan Hall. “Britten up close” was an intimate portrait of the composer in his centenary year, presented in a sequence of bittersweet works for voice and piano, and voice and guitar, performed by tenor James Gilchrist, pianist Imogen Cooper, soprano Ruby Hughes (standing in for the indisposed Christianne Stotijn) and guitarist Christoph Denoth.

Ruby Hughes © Alejandra Hernandez
Ruby Hughes
© Alejandra Hernandez

The recital opened with Britten’s first Canticle, My Beloved is Mine. Although the word “canticle” suggests a hymn or psalm, Britten’s five Canticles are not obviously religious and some are drawn from secular texts. The first, for tenor and piano, sets a poem by the metaphysical poet Francis Quarles, derived from verses from the Song of Solomon, and is a celebration of Britten’s professional and personal relationship with Peter Pears. Written in 1947, it was first performed at a memorial concert for Dick Sheppard, founder of the Peace Pledge Union. The work resonates with a thinly-veiled eroticism (implicit in the text), made more obvious by tenor James Gilchrist’s lingering over the more rapturous lines and his highly expressive style of delivery, which neatly caught the changing moods, meaning and tempi of this work.

Soprano Ruby Hughes offered more gentle curves and dramas in A Charm of Lullabies, five song settings of text by William Blake, Robert Burns, Robert Greene, Thomas Randolph and John Philip. Premièred by Nancy Evans in 1948, some of the songs in the set suggest the frustrations of parenthood, as well as the joys. Hughes brought great clarity of projection and a clear sense of the individual nature of each song, including a delightful rendering, complete with Scottish burr, in “The Highland Balou” by Burns.

Without the interruption of applause (as requested), Imogen Cooper then performed Britten’s Night Piece (Notturno). Although Britten was a fine pianist, he wrote very few solo works for the instrument. This deceptively simple work was composed as a test piece for the very first Leeds Piano Competition, and in an interview earlier in the concert, Cooper explained she had first come across it while studying at the Paris Conservatoire. It evokes the differing sounds and moods of night-time, and reminds us, with high treble scurryings and trills redolent of Messiaen’s birdsong, and a speeding up of elements in the middle section, that not all is quiet at night. Cooper gave a sensitive and exquisitely nuanced reading of this intimate miniature.

In Songs from the Chinese, James Gilchrist was joined by guitarist Christoph Denoth, whose accompaniment lent a sparse elegance to Gilchrist’s voice, while also recalling the spirit of Chinese lute. These short songs can be seen as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life, and a reminder to make space for silence and contemplation.

The dramatic climax of the concert came in the intense and tragic Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac. Sung by Hughes and Gilchrist, as Isaac and Abraham respectively, whose voices combined in the voice of God with an ethereal richness, this was a highly dramatic and poignant rendering of the story of how Abraham is called by God to sacrifice his own son. The piano part subtly coloured and informed the text, always sympathetically handled by Imogen Cooper.

After such a concentrated and moving performance, the concert closed with a brief duet by Hughes and Gilchrist in Britten’s tart setting of the Somerset folksong “Master Kilby”, the singers bringing humour and wit to their performance in an enjoyable, cheeky exchange.