Britten's The Turn of the Screw, part of the London Symphony Orchestra's contribution to the Britten 100 celebrations, was supposed to have been conducted by Sir Colin Davis; it was instead dedicated to his memory following his death last Sunday. Before the concert began, LSO Chairman and Sub-Leader Lennox Mackenzie and LSO Managing Director Kathryn McDowell delivered an eloquent and fitting tribute to the man they described as the "head of our family". It became clear, if it were not so already, that his love of music, his encouragement of young musicians, and his fatherly concern for the wellbeing of the LSO's players had left indelible marks on the LSO's landscape. Despite being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, the audience was invited to observe a minute's silence in Sir Colin's memory. There was not even so much as a stifled cough.
Sir Colin Davis knew The Turn of the Screw, having previously made a critically acclaimed recording of the work. Although he was in many ways irreplacable, somebody had to step into Davis' almighty shoes on the night; that was left to Opera North's Music Director Richard Farnes, himself having been mentored by the late maestro. It cannot have been easy stepping in at relatively short notice, and then also knowing that it had to be a performance of which Sir Colin would have been proud. Mercifully, Farnes' appointment proved a well-judged decision: musically, if not atmospherically, this performance had everything going for it.
Britten's fascination with Henry James' 1898 ghost story of the same name began when, aged 18, he heard it on the radio. In it, the charming Miles is expelled from school for an unknown reason, and returns to his home, where his sister Flora is being cared for by the housekeeper Mrs Grose. The newly appointed Governess soon sees the figures of the former housekeeper and valet, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, both of whom had died. This and the children's increasingly strange behaviour panics the Governess. The ghost of Peter Quint persuades Miles to steal a letter written by the Governess and addressed to the children's guardian, whom she had agreed never to contact. At the mention of Quint's name, Miles collapses, dead. It is an unsettling story not only because of its supernatural elements, but also because of its ambiguity – who, or what, is the source of the evil in the plot? Who has truly gone mad? What is the significance of the individual elements of the children's odd behaviour? How did the entire scenario come about?
I remain unsure whether this concert performance – which was entirely prop-free; the singers stood/sat, rather than walked around – was a good or bad thing. In a sense, it gave the audience complete freedom to imagine the scenery, adding further ambiguity to this twisted tale. On the other hand, the psychodramatic atmosphere, of which there was a touch in this performance, might have been further enhanced by actions and scenery.
Musically, this was bound to be a superb performance. Britten scored the work for solo instrumentalists, rather than a full orchestra, with an unusual combination of instruments including the ghostly celeste, the cor anglais, and a not inconsiderable selection of percussion instruments. The LSO brought out some of its finest musicians; the wind section was particularly strong, adding sheer terror here (the gradual layering of instruments on the same note was particularly effective), and unnerving levity there (as when Flora and Miles sing "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son" or the rather naughty "Benedicite" (the translation of which reveals penile references, and then "bless ye the Lord" – very Britten).
An excellent cast only heightened the drama of this curious tale. It is difficult, given the combination of voice parts, to achieve balance, and this was evident particularly with the duets of Flora (Lucy Hall, soprano) and Miles (Michael Clayton-Jolly, treble), when – understandably, of course – the former's voice outdid the latter in timbre and volume. That said, Michael Clayton-Jolly is a treble in his prime, producing a strong,unwavering sound in his solo moments. His "Malo" (the Latin memory-aid he sings – and which reveals the ambiguity of the word, which can relate to "prefer", "apple (tree)", "adversity" and "bad"), was beautifully haunting. Hall made an excellent Flora, with a blossoming but youthful voice that suited the role perfectly. The powerfully voiced Sally Matthews really dug into the confusion and abject fear felt by the Governess as the confounding event unfolded. There was some refined singing from Andrew Kennedy in the role of Peter Quint, too, though at times his poise seemed a little stiff, and his voice was somewhat less dramatic than the terrifyingly good Katherine Broderick, whose commanding performance as his quasi-counterpart, Miss Jessel, was the highlight of the night.
Farnes, the cast and the orchestra were fully aware of the pressure to pull this one off in Sir Colin Davis' memory. Happily, I think it was a performance of which he would have been proud.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
Sir Colin Davis © Matt Stuart