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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Britten Abroad
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22 (1940) [18:02]
The Poet’s Echo, Op. 76 (1965) [16:21]
Four French Folksong Arrangements: (La Noël passée; Voici le Printemps; Fileuse; Le roi s’en va-t’en chasse) (1942) [10:06]
Um Mitternacht (c. 1960) [4:26]
Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op. 61  (1958) [13:22]
Four French Folksong Arrangements: (La belle est au jardin d’amour; Il est quelqu’un sur terre; Eho! Eho!; Quand j’étais chez mon père) (1942) [11:31]
Susan Gritton (soprano); Mark Padmore (tenor); Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 11-12 September 2006. The Warehouse, London. DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD122
[73:50]
Experience Classicsonline


The first Britten songs I ever heard were the song cycles Winter Words and the Michelangelo Sonnets. They were a part of the superb Decca Eclipse series that was so influential in the early seventies. In fact, I think I still have the old vinyl recording in my library – I guess I kept it for sentimental reasons and for the beautiful photograph. Of course the Peter Pears/ Benjamin Britten recording of these songs have been released on CD and are no doubt essential discs in every Britten enthusiast’s collection.  Yet it is important that these works are reinterpreted for each generation, and what was an appropriate style of singing in the 1940s may be less satisfactory sixty years later.

For my money, the review in the Daily Telegraph sums up this present release - "Mark Padmore's singing of the Michelangelo Sonnets has all the grace of the young Pears without his mannerisms ...”  It is one of the strange things about Peter Pears - on the one hand I treasure his renditions of English song and on the other I find myself sometimes reacting less than positively to his style. Yet the bottom line is that the Pears/Britten recording is the baseline from which, I imagine, all others will be judged for many years to come. 

After some thirty years of music listening, I still regard the Sonnets and the Winter Words as being amongst Britten’s masterpieces: both cycles seem to re-define many preconceived notions about English lieder. The one is typically English in its explorations and the other turns its focus to the wider musical world. 

It is not necessary to discuss the Sonnets in any detail, save, to point out that they were completed in the United States in 1940 and were the first songs to be composed specifically for Pears. It is a celebration of their love for each other and the beginning of their personal and professional partnership. These songs are inspired by the Italian ‘bel canto’ tradition and this influence informs both the ‘internal structure and the musical language’. 

I do not know the song-cycle The Poet’s Echo Op. 76, so this was a good opportunity to try to get to grips with it. The work was composed whilst Britten and Pears were on holiday in Russia: they were staying with Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya.  At this time Britten had been considering a song-cycle with Russian texts for Vishnevskaya and he had purchased a copy of Pushkin’s poems in a parallel Russian/English translation.  The programme notes suggest that the central theme of the cycle is “the artist’s struggle to elicit some response from an uncomprehending world.”  I enjoyed the piece, but feel that the musical language is not as approachable as his earlier cycles. 

Um Mitternacht, a poem by Goethe, is also new to me. It was composed around 1960, however, for some reason this work remained unpublished during the composer’s lifetime. The sentiment of the poem is the passage of time, and this is appropriate as the composer was close to his fiftieth birthday. This is dark music that never has a flash of light. But then again, the theme of the poem is ‘At Midnight’ so that is to be expected. The English translation does not really endear this poem to me and I guess it loses some of its seriousness. 

Perhaps the loveliest thing on the disc is the Sechs Hölderlin-Fragments which was composed in the summer of 1958. Britten himself regarded these songs highly and declared that they were “probably my best vocal works so far”.  It could be argued that these were his attempt at writing German lieder- yet as Dr John Evans in his excellent sleeve-notes points out, they are more Alban Berg that Franz Schubert. That, notwithstanding, this is a stunningly beautiful reflection on life as time passes. The cycle progresses from a consideration of worldly fame, to a longing for the lost innocence of childhood and ending up with a degree of self doubt.

The cycle was a gift to Prince Ludwig of Bavaria on his fiftieth birthday – a thoughtful gift, certainly, with both men dwelling on the frailty of their reputations. 

Some of the most attractive and downright beautiful pieces on this CD are the folksong settings of French texts. In fact if I was to suggest a starting point for people interested in discovering Benjamin Britten’s vocal works it would be these eight arrangements. There is a simplicity and a subtlety about these pieces that make them almost timeless. Britten is well known for his English Folksong settings, including the ubiquitous Sally Gardens. Yet in these present songs he finds all that is best in Gallic charm and infuses this into virtually every note.  The Times critic suggest that "Gritton all but steals the album with the haunting Il est Quelqu'un". It is a sentiment with which I would wholeheartedly agree. This is one of most gorgeous pieces of music by Britten in particular and in European music in general. 

What we have here is a wonderful CD. I accept that not all the pieces presented may be everyone’s cup of tea. Certainly I needed to do a double-take on The Poet’s Echo. But taken in the round it is a fine presentation of a selection of the composer’s works. It covers that which is well-known, such as the Sonnets and works from the ‘hidden’ repertoire such as the Um Mitternacht and the folksong settings. 

The singing and the playing are superb, the presentation is second to none and the programme notes are ideal. All in all, this is a fine production.

John France 


 


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