Britten's SongsBritten's Songs

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Harmonia Sacra – Lord! I have sinned; Hymn to God the Father; A Hymn on Divine Musick. This Way to the Tomb – Evening; Morning; Night. Night covers up the rigid land. Fish in the unruffled lakes. To lie flat on the back with the knees flexed. A poison tree. When you’re feeling like expressing your affection. Not even summer yet. The Red Cockatoo. Wild with passion. If thou wilt ease thine heart. ­Cradle Song for Eleanor. Birthday Song for Erwin. Um Mitternacht. The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op 35

Ian Bostridge ten Graham Johnson pf 

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Bostridge is in the royal line of Britten’s tenor interpreters. Indeed his imaginative response to words and music may come closer than any to Pears himself. He’s heard here in a veritable ­cornucopia of mostly unfamiliar and unknown songs (the Donne cycle apart), mainly from the earliest period of Britten’s song-writing career when his inspiration was perhaps at its most free and spontaneous. The three settings from Ronald Duncan’s This Way to the Tomb nicely match that poet’s florid, vocabulary-rich style as Britten was to do again two years later in Lucretia, with ‘Night’, based on a B minor ground bass, a particularly arresting piece. The Auden settings, roughly contemporaneous with On this Island, all reflect Britten’s empathy with the poet at that time. The third, ‘To lie flat on the back’, evinces Britten’s gift for writing in racy mode, as does ‘When you’re feeling like expressing your affection’, very much in the style of Cabaret Songs. Much deeper emotions are stirred by the two superb Beddoes settings (‘Wild with passion’ and ‘If thou wilt ease thine heart’), written when the composer and Pears were on a ship returning home in 1942. ‘The Red Cockatoo’ itself is an early setting of Waley to whom Britten returned in Songs from the Chinese

All these revelatory songs are performed with full understanding and innate beauty by Bos­tridge and Johnson, who obviously have a close artistic rapport. The Donne Sonnets are as demanding on singer and pianist as anything Britten wrote, hence their previously small representation in the catalogue. Both artists pierce to the core of these electrifying songs, written after, and affected by, Britten’s visit to Belsen with Menuhin in 1945. The recording catches the immediacy of these riveting performances. 

 

Additional Recommendations

‘Britten Abroad’

Six Hölderlin Fragments, Op 61. Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op 22. The Poet’s Echo, Op 76.Um Mitternacht. Eight French Folksongs

Susan Gritton sop Mark Padmore ten Iain Burnside pf

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Britten is ‘abroad’ here in the sense that he is occupied with foreign texts. He is also away in time. The breadth of cultural reference is large, involving four languages, none of them his own. The recital, then, challenges its listeners as well as its performers.

And how these two singers have grown, both in voice and artistry. The languages assist in the sense we have of them as being transformed. Mark Padmore in Italian, Susan Gritton in Russian show themselves in new guises. Each is inescapably performing in the shadow of a great original; but even as (in our minds) we hear Pears and Vishnevskaya, recognising that their voices are written into these songs, we can acknowledge these younger artists as worthy successors, and (to be honest) part of us is glad to be hearing them instead. Padmore has now quite a full-bodied ring to his voice at a forte (hear him in the strong affirmations of the last sonnet), and Gritton commands an aristocratic concentration of tone, unshakably firm and precise in its placing.

Iain Burnside more than copes with the formidable technical difficulties, and in many songs (for instance, the last of the Pushkin poems with its ticking clock, or the spinning-wheel in ‘Fileuse’ mingling past and present in the old woman’s thoughts) we bless the imaginative touch. Recorded sound is fine, as are John Evans’s introductory notes.

 

‘Before Life & After’

Britten The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op 35. Folksong Arrangements – There’s none to soothe; The Miller of Dee; Sail on, sail on; At the mid hour of night; I wonder as I wander. Winter Words, Op 52 Purcell/Britten An Evening Hymn on a Ground, ‘Now that the sun hath veil’d his light’, Z193. Job’s Curse, ‘Let the night perish’, Z191. A Morning Hymn, ‘Thou wakeful shepherd’, Z198

Mark Padmore ten Roger Vignoles pf

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The two song-cycles that Mark Padmore pairs on this disc are highly contrasted. The Holy Sonnets of John Donne were composed in 1945, soon after Britten’s visit to German concentration camps, and the stark immediacy of that experience can be heard in the composer’s own recordings. Padmore and Roger Vignoles, his warm-toned accompanist, take a more reflective line. Tempi are slower, the emotions feel more consoling, and at the core of the cycle is some heartfelt singing in the sixth and most beautiful setting, ‘Since she whom I loved’.

The vivid picture-painting of Winter Words helps make it probably Britten’s most popular song-cycle with piano. Several of the Thomas Hardy poems evoke a time of innocence now lost, a familiar Britten theme, and the evocative performance by Padmore and Vignoles captures that sense of longing particularly well. The portrait of the lone boy traveller on the Great Western could be more vivid (Vignoles’s train jogs along somewhat sluggishly), but otherwise Padmore dramatises the narrative songs with subtlety and imagination.

Padmore also includes three of Britten’s Purcell realisations and a handful of the lesser-known folksongs, all impeccably sung. Harmonia Mundi’s presentation is excellent.

 

Britten Quatre Chansons françaises. Les illuminations, Op 18 Delius A Late Lark Finzi Dies natalis, Op 8

Susan Gritton sop BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

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The pleasures here are many. Finzi’s Dies natalis opens the programme and right from the outset one can hardly fail to be struck by the exquisite (but never self-aware) sheen of the BBC SO’s response. Edward Gardner directs with the utmost sensitivity, shaping Finzi’s arching melodic lines with gratifying elasticity and always displaying a genuinely sophisticated feel for texture. Susan Gritton, too, sings with heartfelt empathy, radiance and intelligence, and her alliance with Gardner certainly distils the necessary tingle-factor. Just occasionally her lustrous tone hardens a fraction when she ascends the heights in ‘The Rapture’. A small niggle and scarcely enough to take the shine off an account which grows with every hearing.

Gardner’s view of Les illuminations likewise excites in its imaginative spark, scrupulous observation and lucid thrust. Gritton’s assumption is pleasingly fresh and agile even though it may not match, say, the incomparable Heather Harper in her comprehensive understanding of Britten’s masterly score; nor is her French diction all it might be. Otherwise, there’s little with which to take issue, and she reserves her very best form for Britten’s astonishingly precocious Quatre Chansons françaises. Delius’s A Late Lark makes a gorgeous postscript. Chandos’s outstandingly realistic, truthfully balanced sound emanates from the BBC SO’s Maida Vale home, and there are personable and informative notes by Andrew Burn. 

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