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.
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.