Over quite a period
of time now I have been listening to these two generously filled
discs, searching for reasons not to buy this release. What a
pleasure it is to say that I have not thought of a single one.
If Britten’s only
legacy was that he brought Purcell’s music once again into wider
circulation, he would have earned my gratitude. What we have
is not just a playing of Purcell’s music. After all, Purcell
only wrote the bass part as an indication of the intended harmony
with the voice. Britten’s role is to fill out the harmony of
the continuo part, which he does with sensitivity and respect
for Purcell, but also allowing some of his own personality to
shine through. To my ears though, Purcell remains the dominant
composer. It should be noted also that Britten viewed these
realizations not as dry, academic exercises, but pieces intended
for active performance, which he sought to do in partnership
with Peter Pears.
Twelve years ago,
when this release was recorded, the nine singers included in
this set were either at the start or height of their careers.
It is typical of Hyperion and Graham Johnson’s approach to recording
that specific singers are paired with the songs they are so
that the voice type can bring out some inference from the text.
Of the individual
performances here, there is only one song that sounds less than
ideal, and it is The Knotting Song, which opens the first CD.
James Bowman’s tone is a touch forced, as his voice seems lacking
in the suppleness that it had in former years. His diction though
is perfectly acceptable. He sounds put under less pressure by
much of the other material he sings, and overall – as with other
singers included – it is good to have his involvement given
his long association with Britten’s music.
The three sets of
realizations dating from 1947, 1948 and 1960 that occupy the
majority of CD 1 show the singers in solo repertoire, occasionally
giving the possibility to hear the same text under different
settings and voices. Felicity Lott’s reading of “If music be
the food of love” from the second set beguiles more directly
than John Mark Ainsley’s reading of the first set’s treatment.
He does use the text with intelligence though. Many of the songs
were made famous by Alfred Deller – though he employed other
realizations – such as “Music for a while”. Sarah Walker manages
to convey enough ethereal spirit to still the passage of time
for a moment as Johnson delights in Britten’s accompaniment.
are also usefully employed in some of the Six Duets, realized
in 1961. Vocally she finds sympathetic partners in Susan Gritton,
with her bright, agile soprano, and Richard Jackson’s richly-hued
baritone. Ian Bostridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson bring the
qualities of word pointing that have made them such admirable
interpreters of Britten’s own music to Purcell. Indeed, they
draw out much of the drama that is inherent in the settings
– the point that first caused Britten to promote Purcell’s cause.
CD 2 sees the nature
of the repertoire change to more sacred ends with the Divine
Hymns, which Rolfe Johnson and Lott sing with sensitivity between
them. Of greater musical interest, it seems to me, are the longer
solo songs and the trio “Saul and the Witch at Endor”, most
of which Simon Keenlyside contributes to with certainty of purpose
and a finely shaped sense of line. Little more proof should
be needed of the dramatic attraction of Purcell’s music that
the reading he gives of “Let the dreadful engines of eternal
will”, which closes both disc and set. In it, all manner of
passions and powers are stated and suggested in a manner infinitely
suggestive of something beyond any one man’s grasp.
The recording throughout
is clear and atmospheric.
The release is supported
by excellent yet concise notes by David Trendell. The full song
texts are given also, though in most cases their inclusion is
something of a luxury given the excellent diction of all the singers.
Most strongly recommended, particularly at bargain price!