David Leisner & Rufus Muller Perform to Works of Benjamin Britten

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I discovered musician and composer David Leisner recently by hearing him play live at a Symphony Space performance in New York City this month.

Although he is a renowned guitarist who has performed in countless countries for years, this was my first exposure to this solo performance in which he played to the music of Benjamin Britten while tenor Rufus Muller sang.

Naxos has produced his recording of the Hovhaness Concerto with Gerard Schwarz and the Berlin Radio Orchestra and he also has a CD of a Koch recording of Haydn Quartet in D with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and Hovhaness Spirit of Trees for Telarc with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis.

At this intimate performance, works of Benjamin Britten were performed from 1913-1976. Included in the program were folk song arrangements from 1956 and 1958: I will give my love an apple, Sailor-Boy, Master Kilby, The Soldier and the Sailor, Bonny at Morn and the shooting of his dear. They also performed Nocturnal, op. 70 from 1963 and songs from the Chinese, op. 58 from 1957, which included The Big Chariot, The Old Lute, The Autumn Wind, The Herd-Boy, Depression and Dance Song.

The duo went back and forth between melocholoy and surreal to folksy, jovial and fun numbers. Stylish Rufus Muller has an elegant demeanor about him as he belts with passion from the stage. His career spans opera, oratorio and recitals worldwide. He was hailed by the New York Times as “easily the best tenor he has heard in a live Messiah” and as giving “the strongest theatrical performance of a Bach Eganglist that he has encountered.”

All of the works of the program were written within a ten year span from 1953-1963, a product of the concert collaboration of Benjamin Britten’s life partner, the great tenor Peter Pears and their friend, guitarist Julian Bream.

Whether the settings of the Folk Song Arrangements are straightforward, like the famous riddle of “I will give my love an apple” or the jaunty “Sailor Boy” or the dramatic “Bonny at Morn,” or drunken, as “The Soldier and the Sailor”, the folk songs are all imbued with the ambivalent, questioning harmonic language of Benjamin Britten. The subject is usually love or lust or other such disturbances of life.

Many consider the Nocturnal to be quite possibly the best piece written for guitar to-date. And, Arthur Waley’s English translations of ancient Chinese poems appeared just after the Second World War and provided the inspiratino for The Songs from the Chinese.

Later this season, on March 27, 2014, Guitar Plus and Symphony Space’s The Music of Now will present “Guitar Guitar Guitar”, a concert devoted to music of repetitive structures. Music will be Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Ingram Marshall, and David Leisner.

Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.