Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
The Gramophone Choice
Coupled with Folksongs – The Bonny Earl o’ Moray; Avenging and Bright; The Last Rose of Summer; Sally in our Alley Walton Façade
Sir Peter Pears ten/spkr Dame Edith Sitwell spkr Dennis Brain hn Benjamin Britten pf Boyd Neel String Orchestra / Benjamin Britten; English Opera Group Ensemble / Anthony Collins
Decca download 468 801-2DM (74' · ADD/DDD) Recorded 1953-54. Buy from Amazon
This disc includes one of the great highlights of the whole Britten discography, that first magical recording of the Serenade, with Pears in fresh, youthful voice and Dennis Brain’s marvellous horn obbligatos, creating frisson-making echoes in Tennyson, dark melancholy in Blake, and rippling away exuberantly in Johnson’s ‘Hymn to Diana’. What playing! The transfer is faithful; but why on earth couldn’t Decca have removed the surface rustle, and above all, the clicks? The coupled Walton Façade, however, was a consummate technical and artistic miracle of Decca’s mono era. Edith Sitwell and Pears deliver the engagingly preposterous words with bravura insouciance, Collins conducting the English Opera Group Ensemble with matching wit and flair, and even today the 1953 recording sounds almost like stereo.
Coupled with Les illuminations, Op 18. Nocturne, Op 60
Ian Bostridge ten Radek Baborák hn Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
EMI 558049-2 (75’ · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
This recording offers a profoundly considered and technically immaculate traversal of Britten’s three great and varied cycles for tenor and orchestra, conceived with Pears’s voice in mind. Bostridge’s particular gift for lighting texts from within, and projecting so immediately their images, comes into its own arrestingly in the Nocturne. With his vocal agility and vital word-painting at their most assured – allied to surely the most virtuoso account of the obbligato parts yet heard, and Rattle supremely alert – this reading sets a standard hard to equal. Add a perfectly balanced recording and you have an ideal result.
Not that the accounts of the earlier cycles are far behind in going to the heart of the matter. Bostridge catches all the fantasy and irony of Les illuminations and projects the text with a biting delivery that stops just the right side of caricature. Rattle and his orchestra are once again aware of Britten’s subtleties of rhythm and instrumentation.
The Serenade, most easily accessible of the three works, demonstrates the advantages of recording after live performances. Everything seems fresh-minted and immediate, nowhere more so than in Radek Baborák’s bold yet sensitive horn playing. Some of the verbal over-emphases that are now part of Bostridge’s vocal persona might not have been approved by the composer but for the most part they second the plangent beauty of his voice, which is evident throughout these very personal and satisfying interpretations. Bostridge writes illuminating notes in the booklet, too, adding to the disc’s value.