Britten Songs

Author: 
Alan Blyth
Britten SongsBritten Songs

BRITTEN Songs

  • Harmonia Sacra, Lord! I have sinned (Pelham Humfrey)
  • Harmonia Sacra, Hymn to God the Father (Pelham Humfrey)
  • Harmonia Sacra, A Hymn on Divine Musick (William Croft)
  • This way to the Tomb, Evening
  • This way to the Tomb, Morning
  • This way to the Tomb, Night
  • (2) Auden Songs
  • Fish in the unruffled lakes
  • (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

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 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. Just as poignant is the haunting Not even summer yet, a setting of Peter Burra, killed in an air crash in 1937, while the setting of MacNeice’s Cradle song for Eleanor, dating from autumn 1942, shows Britten’s lyrical vein at its most arresting. 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. 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.
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