Monday, November 05, 2012

Jennifer Vyvyan Remembered

As we know, Benjamin Britten composed with favourite artists in mind, singers especially. Naturally, Peter Pears had the lion's share of the roles but the soprano Jennifer Vyvyan notched up four: Lady Rich (Gloriana), Mrs Julian (Owen Wingrave)  and two major parts: Tatyana (M.N.'s Dream) and the Governess (Turn of the Screw). B.B. tailored the music to the singers he wrote for them, their compass, taking into account their characteristics, foibles and good notes, so that their music even sounds like a portrait of the artists when more recent singers are performing. Those who were lucky enough to have heard Jennifer hear her voice again, years later, although she died way back in 1974 – she was only forty-nine.

She was peerless in Handel, Rameau and Purcell, in Mozart too (Donna Anna, Constanze, a CD of arias). And she excelled in performances of Britten's Les Illuminations, the War Requiem and the Spring Symphony.  

Michael White organised an eloquent, touching tribute to J.V. in the Wigmore Hall (September 29); during the day talks (including one by her son, Jonathan),  a discussion and recordings, ending in the evening with a recital of songs and arias that she used to sing, with the soprano Elizabeth Watts and the excellent pianist, James Southall. The programme included works by Antony Hopkins, Hugo Wolf (whose Lieder she adored) and Poulenc (she sang, so to speak, the title bosom in Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias at one of the many Aldeburgh Festivals which she graced).  

In the programme Michael White described J.V.'s artistry "as combining a feisty, emotional and somewhat tempestous character with tenderness and a sense of vulnerability". Her performances often sounded as if on a knife edge yet always penetrating to the very core of the composer's intentions. Her intonation was perfect, her sense of style impeccable, whether in music that was lyrical or coloratura above the staves. 

If there was one performance that stood out in her career it was that of the Governess in the Screw, emotionally shattering in its power at the climax but tear-provoking in the scene when she writes to the Guardian of the children ("Dear sir, oh, my dear sir"), a rare purple passage in Britten's output, complete with blue notes and all. 

Her achievement was all the more remarkable in that she had to cope all her life with respiratory problems that eventually led to the heart disease that caused her too early death, problems not always treated sympathetically by the Suffolk composer.
Jenny was a good companion, fun to be with and having a sense of humour that even extended to telling jokes against herself, such as one about her return visit to Wales where the music club secretary greeted her with "good to see you back on our platform. Same old dress, I see."

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