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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Folksong Arrangements: From Volume 1 (1943): The Salley Gardens (2:42); Little Sir William (2:38); The bonny Earl o' Moray (2:31); The trees they grow so high (3:25); The Ash Grove (2:48); 6. Oliver Cromwell (0:50). From Volume 3 (1947): The plough boy (1:59); Sweet Polly Oliver (2:23); The miller of Dee (2:03); The foggy, foggy dew (2:37); O waly, waly (3:41); Come you not from Newcastle? (1:21). From Volume 5 (1961): The brisk young widow (2:07); Sally in our alley (4:39); Early one morning (3:12); Ca' the yowes (4:15). From 2001 collection of previously unpublished arrangements: Tom Bowling (4:51); Greensleeves (2:03). From Volume 4 (1960): Avenging and bright (1:31); How sweet the answer (2:12); The minstrel boy (2:14); Dear harp of my country (2:37); Oft in the stilly night (2:42); The last rose of summer (4:28).
Steve Davislim (tenor); Simone Young (piano)
rec. Friedrich-Ebert-Halle Hamburg, 19-22 August 2006. Sung texts included.
MELBA RECORDINGS MR301120 [65:49] 


Experience Classicsonline

Steve Davislim and Simone Young offer here a representative selection of Britten’s folksong arrangements in English for voice and piano. In the heading I’ve cited the source volumes and dates. To give a different perspective from the review of this SACD by John France I’m comparing these performances with those on the complete set of folksong arrangements recorded in 1994 on Hyperion CDD 22042. This omits two items on the present SACD. These were not published until 2001.

Steve Davislim’s account of The Salley Gardens is relaxed and lyrical which suits the text and points the emphasis on ‘foolish’ in the final lines of both stanzas. The tenor Jamie MacDougall (Hyperion) is faster and more emotive while Malcolm Martineau’s piano accompaniment is more tellingly poised than Simone Young’s in its elegiac solos and greater intensity in the second stanza. Young is sonorous but less varied.

Davislim and Young bring a romping bounce to Little Sir William but MacDougall; and Martineau are more successful in making its first four stanzas gradually louder and more serious. They also achieve more contrast with the fifth and sixth stanzas’ sotto voce ghost and the final stanza’s ironic return to skipping innocence.

The raw lament The bonny Earl o’ Moray is more emotively treated by Davislim with a more heroic quality than the piercing vibrato of soprano Lorna Anderson in the Hyperion recording but again Martineau’s accompaniment is more pointed as it intensifies for the refrain of both stanzas. The trees they grow so high, a text better suited to female voice, is delivered by Anderson with directness and fluency. Davislim’s more measured approach allows more reflection on the text but misses the chilling sense of the sheer sweep of life. The slower tempo also gives Young less scope and expressiveness than Martineau in pointing the gradual elaboration and then deconstruction of the accompaniment to match the narrative.

The Ash Grove relies for its effect as much on the contrast of dynamics as varied characterization of the accompaniment. In both MacDougall and Martineau are more dramatically expressive though Davislim’s languorous opening and Young’s gently lapping accompaniment are beguiling. Davislim and Young’s approach to Oliver Cromwell is rather measured. Anderson and Martineau realize its Vivace marking more effectively but this song is better suited to the weight of a male voice, backed by greater density from Young. This also allows for greater contrast of softening at the close.

Davislim’s approach to The plough boy is unusually lyrical where MacDougall and Martineau show more outlandish verve which matches the text better; but Young’s accompaniment, in clarifying the staccato elements, provides a fair counterbalance. Being narrated from the female perspective, Sweet Polly Oliver is better suited to Anderson than Davislim who mulls over the text more, savouring it so you concentrate on events as they happen rather than, as with Anderson, being swept along. But the greater pace allows Martineau to reveal more tellingly how the accompaniment mirrors both the melody and the characterization.

The miller of Dee is more starkly realized by MacDougall and Martineau: you feel the whole atmosphere of the mill in the accompaniment an oppressive burden. Davislim, however, brings more sense of heroic striving against a grim but more manageable environment. In The foggy foggy dew MacDougall and Martineau’s approach is lighter and more smiling but Davislim and Young’s more dramatized, winking, even leering manner is very engaging.

O waly, waly is a classic example of Britten’s use of accompaniment, a three-note mantra and dynamic contrast to turn folk song into art song rich in longing for unrequited love. Davislim and Young reveal the song’s lyricism and dynamic contrasts but their comfortable tempo lacks tension, even though it emphasises the sense of elegy of the final stanza. Anderson and Martineau’s presentation is more appreciably poised, growing and then fading in intensity. In Come you not from Newcastle honours are fairly even between the spirited, blithe but somewhat thin-toned articulation of Anderson and the fuller-toned, more ardent Davislim. Anderson and Martineau get across better the echo effect of the repeated stanza.

Davislim contrasts well the dialogue between The brisk young widow and her suitor but Young’s accompaniment is squarer and more deliberate than Martineau’s nervier, spikier manner. This allows MacDougall to be crisper in articulation and thereby more acerbic. In Sally in our alley MacDougall deals more naturally with the progression of the narrative without detriment to the lyricism in which Davislim is more self-conscious, emphasising the apexes of the melody. Again Martineau brings more variety than Young to an accompaniment which begins dreamily but grows ever more lively.

The text of Early one morning is better suited to female delivery and Lorna Anderson’s simple, sorrowing manner is more effective than Davislim’s more evident colouring of the refrain. This emphasises the artifice of the setting, but the quieter final verse is realized with fine sensitivity. On the other hand, the declamation required in the refrain of Ca’ the yowes is better suited to Davislim and he also points with greater meaning the growing intimacy of the verses and the closing soft refrain.

Britten’s ‘slow march’ for piano before and after the verses of the elegy Tom Bowling is creamily floated followed by a dull, routine recognition of nothingness, “a sheer hulk”. The recording of Britten’s concert performance with Peter Pears (BBC Legends BBBCB 80062, no longer available) contrasts the two phrases more vividly than Young does here. Davislim sings with direct, affecting lyricism but the formality which is part of the work’s complexity is blunted in that he doesn’t always observe the ornamentation written out in the realization. For example, in verse 1 on ‘Tom’ (tr. 17 0:25), ‘tempest’ (0:40) and ‘soft’ (1:03) though it is observed in verse 2 on ‘oft’ (2:13). As it happens Pears is even less scrupulous about observing ornamentation.

Britten’s arrangement of Greensleeves is an icy reality check, the lament of a jilted lover with a dull, unsettling jabbing piano accompaniment. This is intensified by appearing an octave higher in the second verse, varied in the refrain by a brief, aching counter-melody of what might have been. Davislim and Young are vividly blunt.

Avenging and bright is delivered by Davislim with some brio but lacks the heft to match its ‘fast and furious’ marking, nor is verse 3 (tr. 19 0:42), which should be ‘in undertones’, sufficiently conspiratorial. Soprano Regina Nathan on Hyperion is more suitably dramatic, albeit rather shrill. Davislim is more successful in the comely lyricism of How sweet the answer, beginning sotto voce and opening out in the second verse marked ‘more express.’ (0:44). Nathan, however, offers a pearly simplicity and is more winsome in the final verse.

The minstrel boy is well treated by Davislim and Young in the broad, heroic first verse and quieter, memorial second. Nathan and Martineau achieve a greater and more poignant contrast between the two, even if Nathan’s first verse is rather too strident. Dear harp of my country is a fine example of a work whose expansive line and elaborate intrinsic ornamentation are comparable to that of Purcell. However, Davislim and Young are too deliberate, too immediate for its delicate, passing dream of brief happiness. Even so, its moments of rapture like “the warm lay of love” (0:36) are well realized. Nathan’s gentler, more measured reflection conveys the text more revealingly while Davislim glories in the melody.

Much the same may be said about Oft in the stilly night whose kernel is the transformation from fond to sad memory. Davislim achieves a ‘more sonorous’ second verse (tr. 23 1:21) as marked but Nathan again locks attention more vividly on the text. The last rose of summer finds Britten in his growing elaboration of musical line, accompaniment and ornamentation again moving folk song close to art song. Davislim brings to it a measured, full-toned, densely emotive, even tragic vein; the final verse (tr. 24 3:02) more grimly resolute. Nathan is more gaunt, spare and thereby evokes more pathos.

The SACD recording, as you might expect, is vividly immediate and pleasingly full-toned. These are accomplished performances which convey well the range of mood and expression in these arrangements, but at times the Hyperion set has more depth.

Michael Greenhalgh

see also Review by John France




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