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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Winter Words Op.52 (1953) [22:39]
Four Burns Songs (1975) [8:32]
Who are these Children? Op.84 (1969) [22:44]
If it’s ever Spring Again (1953) [2:40]
Dawtie’s Devotion (1969) [1:17]
The Gully (1969) [0:53]
The Children and Sir Nameless (1953) [2:42]
Tradition (1969) [0:53]
Ca’ the Yowes (from Folk Song Arrangements, Vol.5) [4:08]
Daniel Norman (tenor)
Christopher Gould (piano)
rec. August 2005. Potton Hall, Suffolk, England
BIS BIS-CD-1510 [68:11]
Experience Classicsonline

I was first introduced to Benjamin Britten’s Winter Words by way of an old Decca Eclipse recording with Peter Pears and the composer. This has become my touchstone for any subsequent recording or performance. The work was written for Pears in 1953 and the vocal line tends to reflect that singer’s unique style. Perhaps Pears’ interpretation would be regarded as an anachronism nowadays – certainly his voice can sometimes sound contrived and perhaps even a little strained. However, he was instrumental in performing many of Britten’s finest works; he defined a large number of operatic roles and also interpreted a wide variety of English songs. Of his recordings Schubert’s Winterreise is masterly. And, for the record, I listened again to Pears singing Winter Words and Who are these Children? as part of my preparation for writing this review.
 
So Pears defined Winter Words. Other singers, including Ian Partridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson have made these songs their own. Surprisingly, there have been comparatively few recordings of what is probably one of the masterworks of vocal music written in the twentieth century.
 
And now we come to Daniel Norman. I am baffled. I am not convinced by his interpretation of this work. Another reviewer has noted that “I have never before heard a tenor who could offer such a rich palette of colours, and who also has the ability to employ them with such alacrity.” And I guess it is this ‘rich palette’ which I feel he overdoes – not only in Winter Words but in most of the rest of the repertoire on this disc. The only comparison I can think of is that of over-registering a piece of organ music - constantly changing the stop simply because there are so many of them. Some of Norman’s interpretations I really do warm to – for example the The Little Old Table and even the Wagtail and Baby. However I feel that the most important song in this cycle and perhaps one of the greatest songs ever composed is less successful. It just seems to lack the depth that Hardy’s text demands. Before and After Life does not move me as Pears’s version does.
 
The Four Burns Songs derive from A Birthday Hansel which was composed specifically to celebrate Queen Elizabeth, the Queen’s Mother’s 75th birthday. This work was scored for voice and harp. It contained some seven - not six as the programme notes indicate - songs. At the composer’s request Colin Matthews made an arrangement for tenor and piano of the four songs presented here. They are truly lovely pieces and at least the tenor does not overdo the effects for effect’s sake.  Nor does he feel a need to introduce a faux-Scots accent. These are my favourite performances on this CD.
 
I do not like Who are these Children? I understand that they are written from a socialist and a pacifist standpoint and that hardly represents my political take on life. However, I have long admired the writing of William Soutar and like most listeners I can shrive my conscience of preconceptions so as to be able to listen to a musical work of art. Soutar served in the Royal Navy during the Great War so he has personal experience of much that he condemns in his writings. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot get my head round this work. Perhaps it is the fact that the cycle has some thirteen songs or bits of song? Maybe it appears a bit disjointed? Or could it be that the Scottish accent grates on me -  I am a Scot. I do not know. Taken individually I appreciate the poems - even those that are explicitly violent.
 
To be fair to Britten, he has made a wise choice of texts. Only four of them are truly morbid in their ‘ever so true’ analysis of man’s inhumanity to man. The other poems are ‘lyrics, rhymes and riddles’ that explore a number of issues and evoke a variety of moods. Somehow I find this song-cycle hard work to listen to. Daniel Norman’s singing does not make it any easier for me – especially his Scots accent. I must confess that I do not know how this cycle can be performed convincingly by any singer: the depth of the poems demands more than a contrived Harry Lauder patois.
 
This CD is interesting in one key respect. The additional numbers which form appendices to Winter Words and Who are These Children? are included.  The songs were published in the latest scores of these cycles with the strict instruction that they are not to be given as an integral part of the work. This admonition is held to by Norman and Gould: the songs are presented after the three main works. In fact they are even mixed up!
 
It is the first time that I have heard these works and my first reaction is to be quite glad that they are not included in the ‘official’ batting order of the song-cycles. This is especially so with ‘If it’s ever spring again’ and The Children and Sir Nameless. I truly believe that they would upset the balance of the work. Yet this not to deny their importance. Both songs are settings of ‘typical’ Thomas Hardy texts. Both are fine songs in their own right and well deserve their place in the canon of English song.
 
The Soutar additional poems could well have been incorporated into the song-cycle –except for the fact that it would have made it over-long and complex.
 
I worry a little about the balance of this CD. When the music is relatively quiet the piano sometimes seems almost to drown out the soloist. Yet in the louder passages I found myself having to turn down the volume.
 
All in all this is a ‘mixed’ CD. It will never become my preferred choice for Winter Words – that will remain Peter Pears with all his faults! I guess that it is Pears’ ‘intimacy’ that wins out in the end. However, the Burns Songs are masterly and the additional songs are welcome ‘for the record.’
 
And finally, I do wonder why BIS chose to record Ca’ the Yowes. This arrangement was made in 1951 and was published as part of ‘Folk Song Arrangements Volume 5 British Isles’ in 1961. Perhaps they felt it was a nice way to round off a disc of music which had a large Scottish element. Whatever the reason it is a lovely way to conclude this CD – and as an encore it would bring the house down (and ne’er a dry e’en) in any recital given by Messrs Norman and Gould!
 
John France
 

 


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