100 years since the English tenor's birth, John Steane recalls his performances and reflects on his recordings
Pears as a singer of Britten, that’s one thing; Pears as a singer is another. His association with Britten – so close that his voice seems to be written into the music composed for it – gives him a unique position among all the singers of his time and ours. In as far as there can be a definitive performance of anything, his performances of the songs and in the operas and other large-scale works by Britten are what the composer wanted. There are other ways of singing Britten, but this is “his” voice, and it sounds infallibly right. Even the instrumental parts can sound as though written with Pears in mind. The identification is uncannily complete.
But that, of course, does not of itself make him “a good singer”, and many listeners would say he was not. In some, a subdued form of what is nowadays called homophobia may play its part. The features they would not like in his singing anyway are seen as somehow all of a piece with “the thing itself”; there is, they would claim, no virility in his tone. But an aversion is quite understandable on grounds by which a singer may more or less legitimately be judged. It simply is not (they would say) a well-produced voice.
But even then the validity of such an opinion depends on what is being judged. People will say (and they do say – I’ve heard them time enough): “Oh, I just can’t stand it. No, it’s such a pale, bloodless sound. And there’s a beat...It’s like the parody by Dudley Moore. You know [imitation of the imitation]: ‘Li-ttle Miss Muffet’. It’s brilliant, that. Spot on. But you don’t really need to go to that. The original is already a parody of itself. It’s not exactly precious, and it’s not exactly whining though it’s a bit of both those things. It’s... well, I suppose I just don’t like it.”
That is rather an extreme version of the case, but at least you can be grateful to someone who tries as honestly as that to put into words an opinion reached through such a complexity of reactions. The objection to such a response remains, that, as in so many discussions, it all depends on what “it” is. In this instance, is “it” (the subject of our discussion) Pears-on-record or Pears-in-the-flesh? In my view they are very different things.
Of course the recordings sound like Pears himself in that (despite imitations, intentional or involuntary) they could be no one else. But in the flesh he made a different impression. I’ll recall some occasions. I heard him first as Rodolfo in La bohème and as Vặsek in The Bartered Bride, both with Sadlers Wells on tour in 1945. In Bohème his top C was no more than a flick of a note (we were young in those days and such things mattered) but the voice was fresh, well-defined and steady, and the young man on stage was alive, not a stage-dummy, a credible lover, a likeable fellow with manners and a sense of humour. The humour in his characterisation of the stuttering Vặsek arose out of his naturalness, with no overplaying, no self-conscious comic-turn about it. And the singing was such that I believe I hear it still in my mind today.
As Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in the 1950s he needed more vocal power: at least, up in the gallery you felt that he strove for more fullness and weight in the stressful passages than he had to give. In movement too, you knew that the fisherman was a part he had assumed (no doubt his boots and jacket were made to measure but they still didn’t fit him). Yet it remained deeply affecting, and every inflection of his voice so attached itself to his music that you felt no other way was possible. Peter Quint at Sadlers Wells suited entirely in the relationship of voice-to-part-to-place, as did Captain Edward Fairfax Vere in Covent Garden’s Billy Budd. Many years later, Aschenbach in Death in Venice came as a wonderful gift to age: somehow (I can’t now say exactly why) I admired it but was not deeply moved.