100 years since the English tenor's birth, John Steane recalls his performances and reflects on his recordings
I remember with affection his Pandarus in Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, also (though less vividly) his David in Die Meistersinger. There were unforgettable recitals, including one with Joan Cross at Cambridge when they sang excerpts from Werther and (yes) La forza del destino. His Winter Words and (looking in late career like a handsome old Bishop) Winterreise, his Evangelist in the Passions, his singing of smaller things (songs by Percy Grainger for instance), all remain special in the memory. And – this is what one must stress – they would not have done so had they not impressed as being well sung and the voice a pleasure to listen to.
Sometimes (and these occasions are too frequent to be called exceptional) I do think, when hearing Pears’ voice on records, “Yes, that is how he sounded”. But more often I recoil (the Schubert song-cycles are examples) in a way that never, at any stage in his career, was an effect of his singing “in the flesh”. With him, recordings characteristically exaggerated certain features and diminished others. Vibrations are shown up to be wider, more uneven and intrusive than was ever apparent in concert hall or opera house. And, conversely, the fine, pure quality of the voice is less apparent, or counts for less. It was really a voice of strikingly beautiful quality, which in my experience never acquired that impure, metallic “top” that compromises the tone of so many. It never developed a rasp; it did not dry out; it did add weight and warmth. On records the ratio of qualities, one to another, became different, and not to his advantage. I find that I flinch rather at the image of the recorded voice – the sound-picture that switches on in the mind in response to the name. Often it turns out to be an exaggeration of an exaggeration (the imitation of the Dudley Moore parody again). But such things undeniably have their origins.
In a personal “desert island” choice of recordings almost all would have him in music by Britten. The St Matthew Passion under Klemperer would be there, and perhaps some Elizabethan lute-songs with Julian Bream. If, as I’m told is probable, Music Preserved issue Troilus and Cressida with the original cast, and as long as the recording strikes me as reasonably faithful, then that will be eagerly included. For the rest, there are many I would not want to be entirely without (the Schubert, the Gerontius) but little that I would reach for as first choice. In Britten the problem would be one of elimination.
Suppose – dreadful thought – it became a matter of a take-it-or-leave-it single choice, I would not hesitate but grab the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. I might agonise for a moment over the dilemma of earlier (with Dennis Brain) or later (Barry Tuckwell) but the better recording of the voice especially would decide in favour of the latter. All of Pears’ art and soul is there. In addition – because for some 35 years his appearances were woven into the fabric of my musical life – I would like to keep some memento of the visual image. On DVD there is his Idomeneo, also his Grimes. But no (the hearing of his Grimes summons the sight effectively enough). Billy Budd is the one, Captain Vere in his study with his memories: “I am an old man now, and my mind goes back in peace”.
Explore further: suggested listening and viewing
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings Passionato / Amazon
Billy Budd (audio) Passionato
Billy Budd on DVD Amazon
Idomeneo on DVD Amazon
Peter Grimes on DVD Amazon
Peter Grimes (audio) Amazon
Winter Words Passionato / Amazon
St Matthew Passion Amazon
Peter Pears in the Gramophone Archive
June 1986 - Ray Minshull, Executive Vice-President, Decca International remembers Pears
January 2005 - Peter Pears, Reputations
Search more articles about Peter Pears in the Archive
This year's Aldeburgh Festival (June 11-27) will mark the Peter Pears centenary with an exhibition in the Peter Pears Gallery, Aldeburgh, and accompanying events.