Britten Songs & Proverbs of William Blake

Britten’s dramatically powerful Blake cycle is a tall order for Finley and Drake

Author: 
John Steane

Britten Songs & Proverbs of William Blake

  • Songs and Proverbs of William Blake

Sternly, even fiercely standing its ground, the Blake cycle is one of Britten’s most unaccommodating works. Closest in its own genre is perhaps the Donne cycle but there the confrontational force is eased from time to time: with Blake there is no counterpart to “Since she whom I loved”. Nor, if we think of Hardy and Winter Words, is there a place for smiles, even with an ironical twist, or, musically, a place where lyricism blossoms as in “A time there was”. Possibly, in their contrasting ways, tiger and fly combine in the overall form to constitute a scherzo but there is no relaxation of the taut, concentrated expression. The defining character and linkage throughout, moreover, are provided by the proverbs, darkly luminous and fearsome in their didactic conviction.

Of course they challenge the listener, but how much more actively the singer and pianist. They were written for Fischer-Dieskau, more out of respect (it would seem) than affection, and their focus is uncompromisingly serious. There is also implicit recognition of his dramatic power, akin to Aribert Reimann’s when he wrote his opera Lear with the great baritone at its centre. It is this which I would say Gerald Finley does not (yet maybe) command. The point is reinforced by comparison with Benjamin Luxon and David Willison. Luxon catches the Old Testament prophet’s voice which is Blake’s in these subversive utterances. His tiger has more danger in its spring, his poison tree bears stranger, more potent, fruit. Finley as ever acquits himself as a fine singer, a conscientious artist and a thoroughly reliable musician. But the mantle of Elijah is not upon him.

In all else he is excellent: the De la Mare mini-cycle Tit for Tat, the tall story of the wonderful crocodile, the hauntingly dissatisfied “Greensleeves”, the comedy pieces for deaf woman and bird-scarer. In all (including the Blake) Julius Drake is the superb pianist – and perhaps that should be transferred from last sentence to first.

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