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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Folk Song Arrangements
CD 1
Volume 1: British Isles: The Salley Gardens [2:36]; Little Sir William [3:01]; The Bonny Earl o' Moray [2:36]; O can ye sew cushions? [2:20]; The trees they grow so high [3:35]; The Ash Grove [2:35]; Oliver Cromwell [0:45]
Tom Bowling and other song arrangements: Greensleeves [1:56]; I wonder as I wander [3:59]; The Crocodile [4:45]
Volume 3: British Isles: The Plough Boy [1:57]; There's none to soothe [1:37]; Sweet Polly Oliver [2:15]; The Miller of Dee [1:56]; The foggy, foggy dew [2:34]; O Waly, Waly [4:03]; Come you not from Newcastle [1:10]
Tom Bowling and other song arrangements: Pray Goody [0:47]
Volume 5 British Isles: The Brisk Young Widow [2:07]; Sally in our Alley [4:09]; The Lincolnshire Poacher [2:09]; Early one morning [3:18]; Ca' the yowes [3:39]
Tom Bowling and other song arrangements: The Holly and the Ivy [2:25]; Soldier, won't you marry me? [1:41]; The Deaf Woman's Courtship [1:19]
CD 2
Volume 4: Moore's Irish Melodies: Avenging and bright [1:34]; Sail on, sail on [2:26]; How sweet the answer [1:57]; The Minstrel Boy [2:23]; At the mid hour of night [2:46]; Rich and rare [3:06]; Dear Harp of My Country [2:26]; Oft in the stilly night [2:47]; The last rose of summer [3:45]; O the sight entrancing [2:09]
Volume 2 France: La Noel passé [3:51]; Voici le Printemps [1:46]; Fileuse [1:51]; Le roi s'en va-t'en chasse [2:19]; La belle est au jardin d'amour [3:12]; Il est quelqu'un sur terre [4:56]; Eho! Eho! [1:56]; Quand j'étais chez mon père [2:00]
Volume 6 England: I will give my love an apple [1:16]; Sailor-boy [1:54]; Master Kilby [1:59]; The Soldier and the Sailor [2:39]; Bonny at Morn [2:31]; The Shooting of his Dear [2:54]
Tom Bowling and other song arrangements: German Folk Song: The Stream in the Valley [2:32]
Unpublished folk song setting [3.35]
Felicity Lott (soprano); Philip Langridge (tenor); Graham Johnson (piano); Carlos Bonell (guitar); Christopher Van Kampen (cello)
Recorded at St Giles Cripplegate Church, London, March 1995 (disc 1, tracks 1-8 and 10-24, disc 2 tracks 1-24), at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London in June 1995 (disc 1 track 9) and at Henry Wood Hall, London in March 1995 (disc 1 tracks 25 and 26 and disc 2 tracks 25 and 26) DDD
NAXOS 8.557220-21 [65.34 + 67.03]

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Britten composed seven sets of folk-song arrangements. The first set was made during his time in America (1939-42). The final set – Eight Folksong Arrangements for high voice and harp - appeared in the last few years of his life and was written for Pears to sing with the harpist Osian Ellis; he was no longer able to accompany Pears himself. There are then seven sets, of which sets 1, 3 and 5 (all British Isles) are included on the first Naxos disc, and volumes 4 (Moore’s Irish Melodies), 2 (France) and 6 (England) comprise the second. Britten also made various orchestral arrangements from these sets. He also arranged a number of other folksongs, which do not fall into these sets which, though performed, were unpublished. Boosey & Hawkes published these latter in 2001, after the Collins disc came out, as Tom Bowling and Other Arrangements, edited by Paul Kildea. The seventh folksong set is on the third Collins disc (performed by Langridge and Osian Ellis). Also to be found there are the orchestral arrangements (sung by Langridge and Thomas Allen, with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Steuart Bedford), and a number of the then-unpublished folksongs - The Holly and the Ivy with the BBC Singers conducted by Simon Joly, and King Herod and the Cock, The Twelve Apostles and The Bitter Withy with Langridge and the Wenhaston Boys Choir conducted by Christopher Barnett and accompanied by David Owen Norris. There are some wonderful songs on that disc and they are most brilliantly performed. Their omission from the Naxos set is a terrible shame.

The first Naxos disc opens with the well-known Salley Gardens from the first set of British Isles folksongs (both written and performed in America with Pears to great acclaim). One is immediately struck by Langridge’s fantastic enunciation and his beautiful vowels, although it sounds just slightly as though he has a bit of a cold. Many of the British Isles songs are available on the aforementioned Decca disc with Pears, who excels in making the ends of his words very clear – a great bonus. Another excellent advocate of these songs is Robert Tear, available in a 1974 recording with Philip Ledger on EMI. Tear invests the song with more feeling than both Pears and Langridge – although I love Langridge’s regretful-sounding emphasis on the word “foolish”.

I felt in the Salley Gardens that the piano (Graham Johnson) was slightly intrusive, and in the following song, Little Sir William, the accompaniment comes across as too staid – it needs to be much snappier. I would therefore far sooner hear David Owen Norris accompanying this song, as a freer, more spontaneous and upbeat pianist could transform the entire piece into one more lively and vivacious. On the EMI disc, Ledger gets more emotion and life into the piano part and Tear subsequently swings more than Langridge.

Both O can ye sew cushions and The Bonny Earl of Moray are brilliantly sung by Felicity Lott, who gives a suitably impassioned and gripping rendition of the latter. Pears makes The Bonny Earl more mysterious, lugubrious and sobbing, yet Tear, for me, is preferable to both, simply on account of the superb Scottish accent he adopts!

Back to Langridge next with very characterful singing and beautifully jazzy piano accompaniment in The trees they grow so high. Langridge takes this song much slower than Tear, who lilts more and is lighter and gentler, yet the balance is much better on the Naxos disc, with a far too prominent piano accompaniment from Ledger in Tear’s EMI recording. The ensuing Ash Grove is another song with a most incredible piano part. For me, no-one captures this piece quite as well as Pears, who is delightfully delicate and lyrical. On a Virgin Classics disc, Bostridge sings it far too slowly and preciously. On EMI, Tear sings it a great deal faster, but loses something in the speed. Langridge is here a good option, as also in his brilliant rendition of the final song in the first British Isles collection, Oliver Cromwell. Although Tear does well in creating a completely different voice for the “echo”, Langridge outclasses his competition in his school-boyishly cheeky tone on the final “sing it yourself”!

Three songs from the Tom Bowling and Other Song Arrangements follow, commencing with Greensleeves, which is also available from a rather sensational Bostridge on the Virgin disc. One feels that this isn’t the best of Britten’s arrangements, an observation which isn’t enhanced by the piano being quite as prominent and intrusive as it is here, nor on the Virgin disc by Julius Drake’s more stilted accompaniment. Although Bostridge produces a more beautiful, smoother tone, Langridge’s slightly breathy, harsher timbre is perfect for the next song, I wonder as I wander, and he pulls off The Crocodile superlatively. My only comment here is that he needs a pianist capable of begin equally light, silly and frivolous - that would definitely be Norris, then! - to aid his brilliant and animated characterisation and not hinder his efforts to bring the song to life.

Volume three of the folksongs (again British Isles) follows, published in 1947, but mainly composed in 1945 after the premiere of Peter Grimes. In The Plough Boy (available on most Britten folksong discs), Langridge is as good as any of his rivals, although slightly slower than some. Pears has the lightest touch in Sweet Polly, and Tear, starting much faster, gets greater swings in speed. Langridge, although good, sounds slightly muffled – a little stuffy and nasal. He is very effective in the Miller of Dee, as is Pears. Britten’s accompaniment here outshines Johnson’s in summoning up a far more chilling and barren atmosphere.

I must admit to having been slightly disappointed with the various versions of the Foggy foggy dew available. Although Pears produces the most beautiful sound, in all the recordings that I’ve found it is sung too straight; not the case in concert performances. Maltman, on Virgin Classics, gets the best “What shall I do?” and invests the songs with more intrigue than his competitors.

Lott performs O Waly Waly, which is also sung by counter-tenor David Daniels on the Virgin Classics disc. Although Lott is excellent here, I personally prefer the counter-tenor version, which works brilliantly, and is more dramatic, mysterious and haunting. After the final song of the British Isles volume - Come you not from Newcastle - is one more song from Tom Bowling – the far less familiar Pray goody, here given a most accomplished performance by Langridge.

The final folksong set on the first Naxos disc (volume five - again British Isles) was composed between 1951 and 1957, thus overlapping with the fourth set of folksongs, and published in 1961. Despite Langridge and Lott’s admirable renditions, I would turn to Pears and Britten for this set. Although faster than the others, in The Brisk Young Widow, Britten on the piano is nimble and light, and Pears is more vivacious. He offers the best enunciation and beauty in Sally in our Alley. In the Lincolnshire poacher, Pears adopts a gorgeous country accent that draws out the spirit of the piece marvellously. The piano accompaniment is a little heavy and slow on the Naxos disc, but Langridge invests the song with greater vitality, character and animation. Felicity Lott sings the last two songs from this set – Early one morning - which she takes slowly but most atmospherically, almost rivalling Pears’ great lyrical beauty, and Ca’ the yowes, for which she assumes a fine Scottish accent, beautifully light. Yet the accompaniment on the Naxos disc is again eclipsed by that on Decca, with Britten’s outstandingly delicate and atmospheric playing.

The first Naxos disc concludes with three Tom Bowling songs –The Holly and the Ivy, and two rather silly duets – Soldier, won’t you marry me? and the Deaf woman’s courtship, which Lott enhances with aptly rustic inflexions!

The second disc commences with the fourth set of folksong arrangements – Moore’s Irish Melodies, devoted to the Irish poet and musician Thomas Moore. Langridge is not quite as dramatic as Pears in the opening Avenging and bright, but is more suitably bold than the gentler Pears in the Minstrel Boy. Lott creates a perfect air in both Sail on, sail on, and How Sweet the Answer, yet is not as excessively dreamy and tender as Pears in the latter. Her enunciation is splendid, as is Langridge’s in his lyrical and romantic account of Dear harp of my country. The performance of the final song in this set, O the sight entrancing is particularly arresting, as Langridge and Johnson sparkle irrepressibly.

We move to France, next, for the second set, published in 1946 and dedicated to the children of Arnold Gyde and Sophie Wass – the dedicatee of Les Illuminations, and a soprano Britten had worked with extensively. Langridge here gives a vivid and dynamic rendition of La Noel Passé. Le Roi s’en va-t’en chasse is here sung by Lott, but is also available with both Pears and Tear. The Decca version surpasses the others, for me, partly on account of a far snappier Britten rapping the accompaniment out, and partly given Pears’ potent, drastic change in voice and tone on the 3rd, 4th and 6th verses - he leaves out verse five - from brash and bold to exquisitely tender and back again. Although both Tear and Lott also make this alteration a significant one, neither slow down as much as Pears in the quieter bits, nor affect such compelling gossamer sweetness.

The final two songs in the France set are wonderfully sung, Langridge capturing a good sense of urgency in Eho! Eho! and rendering it deeply chilling and atmospheric. Unfortunately the piano is too prominent in Quand j'étais chez mon père and drowns out the dazzling singing at beginning.

The final set on the disc, volume 6 - England - is written for tenor and guitar. Like the fifth set (British Isles), it was published in 1961 and was written for Pears and Julian Bream. Carlos Bonell plays the guitar on the Naxos disc. Commencing with I will give my love an apple, with its innovative and unusual accompaniment, it comprises The Sailor-Boy, the moving Master Kilby, the Soldier and the Sailor, Bonny at Morn – in which Langridge copes brilliantly with the rather dramatic leaps into falsetto - and The Shooting of his Dear. Langridge's powerful voice with its husky timbre works well with guitar accompaniment, and is able to shine forth all the more clearly. The Stream in the valley, a German folksong, follows, with piano and cello accompaniment (Christopher Van Kampen as cellist) - a striking and deeply touching song, in which Langridge’s voice is just perfect – sad, mysterious, dark and troubled.

The disc concludes with an unpublished and unidentified folk song which is given to the cello in the absence of the words. Beautiful and simple, this is a wonderfully haunting end to the disc.

The many different versions of the Britten folksongs have their own charms. Whilst I might occasionally query the prominence, and lack of buoyancy and life in the piano accompaniment, Lott sings beautifully, and Langridge invests the songs with real character and, always persuasive and effective, is often tremendously moving. I tend to turn to Pears and Britten for authenticity and a gorgeous tone. The sound of the EMI Tear disc is more immediate, and Maltman, Daniels and Bostridge on Virgin Classics (recorded in 2001), and Bostridge on EMI Classics (1997) bring their own insights. Other discs I can recommend include Anthony Rolfe Johnson (for sheer beauty of sound) with Graham Johnson on Helios, with the Seven Michelangelo Sonnets, Winter Words and the first Canticle; Ian Partridge singing folksongs and Six Chinese Songs along with some Lennox Berkeley on Ondine; Shirley-Quirk accompanied by Ledger on Meridian (also containing Tit for Tat and the Metamorphoses after Ovid), and the Hyperion disc (Lorna Anderson, Regina Nathan and Jamie MacDougall), which includes all six volumes of the folksongs, as well as Eight Folksong Arrangements. If it is volume six, England, with guitar, that interests you, this is present on an RCA Victor disc with Pears and Bream, along with the Songs from the Chinese and Anon in Love. I find it unlikely that Naxos will now issue the third Collins disc separately, since it contains more of the obscure works, but I find it a great pity that it has been left out of this re-issue. For those really looking for the “complete” edition I would suggest attempting to find a version of the discontinued original Collins version.

Em Marshall


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