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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913–1976)
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31 (1943) [24:32]
Les illuminations, Op. 18 (1939) [21:51]
Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings, Op. 60 (1958) [26:25]
Peter Pears (tenor), Dennis Brain (horn) (Serenade),
New Symphony Orchestra/Eugene Goossens (Serenade and Les illuminations)
Barry Tuckwell (horn), Willie Anthony Waters (bassoon), Osian Ellis (harp), Denis Blyth (timpani), Roger Lord (cor anglais), Alexander Murray (flute), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), London Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
rec. Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, November 1953 (Serenade, Les illumination); Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, UK, September 1959 (Nocturne)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 8470 [73:00]

It is indeed remarkable that these recordings of Serenade and Les illuminations here make their first appearances on CD, 23˝ years after the medium was launched. Of course Decca re-recorded them in the 1960s in excellent stereo sound and with the composer conducting. Peter Pears still sounded much the same then as he did in 1953, which an A/B test clearly showed. The sound quality on these mono recordings is fully listenable although not much to write home about, the strings fairly thin and undernourished as was the case with Decca during this period. It is, however, good to have the original pair of soloists, Pears and Brain, available again. Close listening reveals that the passing years have not left the tenor’s voice completely unaffected. Never a really beautiful instrument – unless we go to his earliest recordings and remember that he once sang Mozart and Puccini – he was able to spin a wonderful mellifluous pianissimo thread in long phrases, an ability he retained also when well past fifty, even sixty, but his fortes could be pinched and his vibrato became more prominent as the years advanced. Even in 1953 all these characteristics were there but to a lesser degree. The voice is lighter, steadier, more flexible and more youthful sounding, and we have to remember that he was already middle-aged.

Interpretatively very little has changed in the later recording. Tempos are on the whole the same, give or take a few seconds and the characterisation, the inflexions, are more or less the same. I suppose that the intervening ten years from the premiere in 1943 to this first recording honed his interpretation to perfection and what we hear here is a well-matured reading. The Elegy (tr. 4) has a dark intensity – and beauty of tone – that is preserved in the remake, although the pianissimo is easier in 1953. In Dirge (tr. 5) he finds almost Heldentenor brilliance. The light and lively Hymn (tr. 6) is done with casual elegance and in the later recording he has to work harder to reach the effect. Those who already own the latter need not necessarily buy the present one, unless for the sake of the legendary Dennis Brain, and of course he plays wonderfully, not least in the Hymn. Barry Tuckwell on the later recording is however just as good.

Comparison of the two versions of Les illuminations tells much the same story: the sound is thinner, more primitive on the 1953 recording while the voice is that little bit fresher, while the interpretations differ very little. Since this work was composed for Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, who also premiered it in Aeolian Hall in London in 1940, it requires an even more flexible and agile voice than the Serenade. Pears executes the whole cycle with aplomb, lively characterisation and intense declamation. An old Swedish Caprice LP with Margareta Hallin shows, however, that the music sits even better in a soprano voice. Without in any way criticising Pears’ French, which is wholly idiomatic, I wonder how Hugues Cuénod would have sung these songs. Did he ever? Anyway, the concluding Départ is one of the most memorable inventions by Britten and it sounds very good in both versions.

The much later Nocturne is far less often performed than the two earlier works and one reason, perhaps the reason, is the gloomy and uninviting tonal language. It is a marvellous composition but it takes some repeated listening to reveal its own special attraction. Formally it is in one movement but it is divided in eight distinct parts where, apart from the first and the last, the solo instruments bring their own colour and character to one section each. The bassoon in Below the thunders (tr. 20) creates together with the double basses an ominous darkness. This mood is retained through the following parts, up to Wordsworth’s September massacre (tr. 23) where the timpani deliver frightening martial roulades. After that the sky lightens; the cor anglais paints a pastoral and then the flute and the clarinet jointly illustrate "a wind in the summer". The conclusion, a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XLIII, where all the instruments get together and create an almost Mahlerian finale, ends in total light with the tenor singing softly: "All days are nights to see till I see thee, / And night’s bright days when dreams do show thee me." From darkness to light – a truly remarkable composition. Recorded in 1959 we are offered a sonically riveting performance with especially spectacular timpani. The soloists are all masters of their instruments and of course Pears premiered the work just a year before the recording so his approach is fresh and inquisitive. Finding a later EMI recording on my shelves with Jeffrey Tate conducting and Robert Tear singing the solo part it was not surprising to hear that he had largely modelled his reading after Pears. After all Tear was the natural heir to Pears, having much the same vocal qualities.

Having these three song cycles on a single disc with the singer whose voice Britten knew better than any other is of course convenient. We have to be grateful to Eloquence for making these recordings available again after so many years. Whatever one’s opinion of Peter Pears there is no denying the authenticity of his singing in Britten. Unless one is allergic to the mono sound, at Eloquence price anyone can afford this disc – either as a first foray into this repertoire or as a complement to other versions. One will have to do without the sung texts but Stephen Schafer’s notes are helpful to some degree.

Göran Forsling



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