Hard as it may be to believe, last night's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert in Meyerhoff Hall was the occasion for the first BSO performance of one of the most moving orchestral song cycles of the 20th century: Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor,Horn and Strings.
In 1943 Britten called this setting of six poems -- all concerned with aspects of dusk, night, sleep or death -- "not important stuff, but quite pleasant, I think." That must be what they mean by British understatement.
The composer takes great poems by Tennyson, Blake and others and makes them even greater. Tennyson may have had the best ear of any English poet and his song "The Splendour falls on castle walls" in "Princess Ida" is filled with marvelous echoic effects, but it sounds positively prosaic by itself after hearing Britten's setting with its sinuous string rhythms, its alternately pointed and muted horn calls and its silvery tenor part.