This disc amply confirms my surmise that 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 is heard here in a veritable cornucopia of by and large unfamiliar and even unknown songs (the Donne cycle apart), mostly from the earliest period of Britten’s song-writing career when his inspiration was perhaps at its freest and most spontaneous. The three realizations from Harmonia Sacra, two of Humfreys, one of Croft, form a satisfying pendant to the wonderful Purcell set recently issued by Hyperion (11/95), each a masterpiece of its kind.
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
All these revelatory songs are performed with full understanding and innate beauty by Bostridge and Johnson, who obviously have a close artistic rapport. They form a lengthy and rewarding prelude to their shattering account of the Donne Sonnets, which they performed so magnificently last year at the Wigmore Hall, scene of the work’s premiere in November 1945. They 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 shortly after the war’s end.
Philip Reed’s fully documented notes, and the skills of Mark Brown (producer) and Antony Howell (engineer) in catching the immediacy of these riveting performances (just as they do in Vol. 24 of the Schubert Edition, see page 94), complete one’s pleasure in this richly satisfying issue.