superb CD this, but only two cheers for Naxos’s presentation.
Firstly, and most seriously, there are no texts enclosed, which
is a great pity. No disrespect to the two singers, whose diction
is exceptionally good but W.H.Auden’s poetry is complex and allusive,
and one really needs to be able to read the poems in order to
fully experience the subtlety and beauty of the settings here.
addition to that carp, there is some confusion over the recording
details, (which I have attempted to correct at ** above), with
no date at all given for Della Jones’ songs. I suspect that they
were recorded in 1997 as that is the year given for the one duet
that she and Philip Langridge sing – but it would be nice to know.
off my chest, this is a fascinating and inspiring issue. We have
here two of the finest British singers of the day singing music
for which they clearly have great empathy. In addition, to those
who know him only as a conductor, Steuart Bedford’s accompaniments
will be a revelation, for his theatrical instincts allow him to
bring out the expressive and dramatic possibilities of the piano
parts with imagination and sensitivity.
is one of the best-known song composers of the 20th century. Lennox
Berkeley is far less familiar, and it was particularly interesting
to hear these settings by this fastidious composer in this year
(2003), the centenary of his birth. Even more revealing was to
compare responses to the same texts by the two composers, who
were close friends, and even collaborators at one stage (on the
Mont Juic Suite of 1937).
two poems in question are Night covers up the rigid land and
What’s in your mind? (Curiously, the booklet gives What’s
on your mind? for the Britten setting, and Langridge
is consistent with that. I haven’t been able to check this with
Auden’s original at the time of writing, but the former ‘in’
version does sound the more likely). In the first, Berkeley
creates a dream-like atmosphere, with a recitative-like middle
section, while Britten uses uneven compound time, and seems to
see a more turbulent, even sinister meaning to the poem. In What’s
in [on] your mind?, Berkeley begins blithely, ingenuously,
weaving the voice into a contrapuntal texture. As the song progresses,
the mood slowly changes and darkens, ending low down in the voice
and accompaniment. Britten is more declamatory, with a strutting
accompaniment, rising to an insistent climax.
Berkeley selection concludes with an unforgettable song, which
also forges an ideal link, as it was dedicated to Britten. Lay
your sleeping head my love weaves a gentle, lullaby-like line,
soothing in its Lydian inflections. It rises with impassioned
intensity before returning to the rapt tranquillity of the opening.
This is a great song.
is always alert to the irony that is never far away in Auden,
the close proximity of comedy and tragedy. This is most powerfully
demonstrated in the wonderful Cabaret Songs of 1937-39,
whether in the boogie-woogie accompaniment underpinning the mounting
hysteria of Tell me the truth about love; in the over-the-top
solemnity of Funeral Blues (probably more familiar, since
Four Weddings and a Funeral as Stop all the clocks);
or most of all in the dark coda to the hilarious Johnny.
(What is wrong with Johnny? Is it a sexual identity crisis?
Or just embarrassment at the behaviour of this manic depressive
female who keeps bothering him?) Della Jones is excellent in these,
projecting the text incisively, but never overdoing the camp humour,
rather allowing the words and music to do the job themselves.
The postscript to these is a tiny curio; When you’re feeling
like expressing your affection, all 45 seconds of it, was
apparently written by Auden and Britten for a telephone advertisement
– a 1930s version of "It’s good to talk".
Britten selection begins with his very fine early cycle On
this island, op.11, composed in 1937. The imaginative resources
of the 24-year-old composer are striking in these songs, and he
rises magnificently to the challenges posed by the psychological
complexities of the texts. Tenor and accompanist are perhaps most
impressive in the bracing Seascape, a territory in which
Britten was to become more and more at home. Nocturne,
with its spell-like words, brings to mind Finzi’s setting of Shakespeare’s
Fear no more the heat of the sun, and has the same hypnotic
quality. Just occasionally, Langridge’s voice sounds a little
tired in its higher register, particularly under the pressure
of fortissimo; but this is not a serious problem. As
it is, plenty belongs to the same jazzy, ironic world as the
fact it’s quite a shock, moving on to the following group of free-standing
songs, to hear what at first could almost be a different singer
at the beginning of track 16, The sun shines down. It then
transpires – if the confused recording details are to be believed!
- that this and the next two were recorded nearly two years earlier
than the rest, and in a different venue, so it’s not so surprising,
since singers’ voices can vary from day to day, let alone over
two years. But do be prepared, because Langridge has a much brighter
edge to his tone in tracks 16-18. It’s a case of swings and roundabouts,
as in the later tracks the voice is softer, more mellow.
what an extraordinary poem is When the sun shines down! What
about this for prescience?
teacher setting examinations, the journalist writing his falsifications.
poet reciting to Lady Diana while the footmen whisper ‘have a
judge enforcing the obsolete law, the banker making the loan for
expert designing the long-range gun to exterminate everyone under
Nothing much changes, does it! But perhaps my favourite track
of this delectable collection is To lie flat on the back.
Langridge captures its equivocal mood superbly, and carries off
a stunning vocal trick at the end (at least I hope he does, and
it isn’t an accident of the editing process!).
is a brilliant issue – great music, performed by musicians whose
instinctive understanding has been enhanced by years of experience.
Despite my reservations about the presentation, it’s a ‘must-have’;
the worst that could happen would be that it will make you rush
out and buy a volume of Auden’s poetry, which wouldn’t be such
a bad thing after all, would it?