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Auden Songs
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)

Tracks 1-5 Five Poems op.53† (1958)
Track 6 Night covers up the rigid land, op.14 no.2†
Track 7 Lay your sleeping head, my love, op.14 no.2b†
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Tracks 8-12 On This Island, op.11†(1937)
Track 13 Fish in the unruffled lakes† (1938)
Track 14 Night covers up the rigid land† (1937)
Track 15 To lie flat on the back† (1937)
Track 16 The sun shines down† (1937)
Track 17 What’s on your mind?† (early 1940s)
Track 18 Underneath the abject willow† (early 1940s)
Tracks 19-22 Cabaret Songs* (1937-39)
Track 23 When you’re feeling like expressing your affection* (1935?)
Track 24 Underneath the abject willow †* (1936)
Della Jones, mezzo-soprano *, Philip Langridge, tenor †, Steuart Bedford, piano
Recorded at St. Silas Church, Chalk Farm, London, Sept.1997 (tracks 1-16**, 24), Blackheath Concert Halls, London, December 1995 (16-18), Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London ?(19-23)
NAXOS 8.557204 [60:57]

A 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.

In 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.

That 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.

Britten 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).

The 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.

The 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.

Britten 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".

The 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 Cabaret Songs.

In 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.

But what an extraordinary poem is When the sun shines down! What about this for prescience?

"the teacher setting examinations, the journalist writing his falsifications.

the poet reciting to Lady Diana while the footmen whisper ‘have a banana’.

the judge enforcing the obsolete law, the banker making the loan for the war.

the expert designing the long-range gun to exterminate everyone under the sun."

1936? 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!).

This 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?

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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