The booklet-writer does his best but it is not easy to work Britten’s The Holy Sonnets of John Donne into a programme entitled ‘French Connections’, although John Mark Ainsley’s searing performance of them fully justifies their being included. From the first anguished outburst in ‘Oh my blacke soule’ Ainsley finds the nub of these spare, pointedly expressive songs, whether they be of brooding grief as in ‘O might those sighes and teares’, vehement admission of sinfulness in ‘Thou hast made me’ or bleak serenity as in ‘Death be not proud’. Malcolm Martineau’s perceptive accompaniments echo the poignancy of the sentiments voiced in the texts, and the collaboration between him and Ainsley is one of mature understanding both of one another’s interpretative stance and of the sophistication of Britten’s language.
Elsewhere the French connection is more secure, with Poulenc’s Paul Eluard settings in Tel jour telle nuit alongside Lennox Berkeley’s Five Poems of WH Auden – the link being more to do with Berkeley’s studies in Paris than with his choice of poet. Again, Ainsley is superb in finding and conveying the particular qualities that lend both Berkeley and Poulenc their musical identities. It’s also good to have on disc the set of four songs entitled Friendly Persuasions by the American composer Jake Heggie, of which Ainsley and Martineau gave the world premiere at the Wigmore Hall in 2008. This is a sort of ‘American in Paris’ tribute, with cameos of four French leading lights who were close to Poulenc – Wanda Landowska, Pierre Bernac, Raymonde Linossier and Eluard – all delivered here beguilingly.