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.
The piece received a splendid performance by BSO guest conductor Raymond Leppard, tenor John Aler and hornist David Bakkegard.
The 63-year-old British conductor was a longtime member of the Britten circle. He worked with the composer in London and at Aldeburgh and he has conducted his operas in London, New York and San Francisco.
That experience showed last night. In the work's "Dirge," for example, he was able to give each of the strands of counterpoint played by different sections of the strings a different center of emotional gravity, and elsewhere he was able to capture all of the work's dancing delicacy and joy. Aler sang with his usual intelligence, taste and beauty of tone; Bakkegard, the BSO's principal hornist, played his instrument with all of the majesty and nobility for which it is celebrated and avoided all the hazards and infelicities of sound for which it is feared.