PORTLAND — If anyone has forgotten just how good Benjamin Britten is, the Portland Symphony Orchestra provided a timely reminder on Sunday at Merrill Auditorium. It played one jewel that gave new meaning to the term “art-song,” and an old chestnut that has survived the test of time unscathed.

Brahms and the Beatles, while pleasant enough, were left in the dust.

Actually, the Brahms “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” (Opus 56a) could never be eclipsed, even if they are as familiar as “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” Both are triumphs of variation form, and both can be very moving.

The orchestra, under Robert Moody, did a good job with the Brahms, which opened the program, even if the texture seemed a little thin at the beginning.

The Beatles, too, are a natural phenomenon, if not on the same level as Britten and Brahms, and Peter Schickele’s “Beatleset” of seven relatively obscure songs, seems to have been a labor of love.

Instead of gussying up the orchestral arrangements, Schickele translates them to a different musical language, which is quite effective and emphasizes the rhythmical variations that make each so distinctive.

Tenor John McVeigh sang the lyrics beautifully, with all the vocal ornamentations. I’d like to hear him tackle one of those awful ornamented versions of “The Star Spangled Banner” that precede football games, but he’d probably prefer to sing it straight.

McVeigh shone even more brightly in Britten’s Nocturne for tenor, seven instruments and strings. Although a Metropolitan Opera regular, even he seemed a little nervous before the beginning of the work, which is a masterpiece, and among the most demanding, musically and emotionally, in the entire repertoire.

Britten chose seven poems to answer Hamlet’s question: “Who knows what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil?”

The authors are among the greatest in the English language — Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Wilfred Owen, Keats and Shakespeare. Their moods range from rage and despair through mockery to praise of the dawn and a love sonnet.

The work has far too many beauties to enumerate, but one is left with images of meticulous craftsmanship applied to rich materials, like a gold and enamel salt cellar by Cellini.

The seven soloists, principals of the orchestra, excelled, providing both counterpoint and obligato to the poems, and establishing the predominant atmosphere of each.

If anything stands out about the Nocturne, it is the musical use of the opening tone row, in ways Schoenberg might not have foreseen, including the Keats “Sleep and Poetry.” In between it serves as the cat’s meow in a humorous section on night noises. That Middleton poem also features a nightingale parody.

Although Moody read the poems before the performance, it would have been better to include them in the program.

Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Op. 34, aka “The Young Person’s Guide …” has always transcended its pedagogical purpose and continues to do so, no matter how many times one hears it. Moody took it at such a fast tempo that the flute and piccolo ensemble was ambushed at first, but otherwise it worked perfectly.

The sonorities of the recently played Bruckner Fourth Symphony were in a class by themselves, but Britten is his equal and even more satisfying, since the chords don’t last forever.

 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:
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