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into these sets which, though performed, were unpublished.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Bedford), and a number of the then-unpublished folksongs - The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
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
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
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.