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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Folk Songs with Harp: The Ash Grove [2:48]; Little Sir William [2:50]; Come ye not from Newcastle? [1:13]; I will give my love an apple [1:52]; The Last Rose of Summer [3:54]; Early one morning [2:57]; There’s none to soothe [1:45]; How sweet the answer [1:56]; The Minstrel Boy [2:03]; Oft in the stilly night [2:35]; The Sally Gardens [2:33]; Sweet Polly Oliver [2:38]; O Waly, Waly (Somerset Folk song) [3:41]; The Plough Boy [2:06]; The Foggy, Foggy Dew [2:44]; The Sailor-boy [1:44]; Master Kilby [1:52]; The Soldier and the Sailor [2:08]; Il est quelqu’un sur terre [4:03]; La Belle est au jardin d’amour [2:40]; Le roi s’en va-t’en chasse [2:09]; Fileuse [1:35]
Two Scottish Folk songs (arranged by Benjamin Britten): O can ye sew cushions? [2:08]; Ca the yowes [3:40]
Gloriana: Second lute song (Act I Scene 2) [4:44]
A Birthday Hansel, Op. 92: (original version) [16:14]
Birthday Song; My Early Walk; Wee Willie; My Hoggie; Afton Water; The Winter; Leezie Lindsay
Canticle V: The Death of St. Narcissus, Op. 89 (T.S. Eliot) [7:13]
Suite for Harp, Op. 83: I Overture [2:33]; II Toccata [1:18]; III Nocturne [2:49]; IV Fugue [1:01]; V Hymn [4:31]
Sacred and Profane – Eight Medieval Lyrics, Op. 91: I St. Godric’s Hymn [1:43]; II I Mon Waxe Wod [0:48]; III Lenten is come [2:30]; IV The Long Night [1:28]; V Yif Ic of Luve Can [2:27]; VI Carol [1:27]; VII Ye that Pasen By [1:40]; VIII A Death [2:46]
A Wealden Trio – Christmas Song of the Women [2:25]
Sweet was the Song [3:05]
The Sycamore Tree [1:30]
A Shepherd’s Carol [4:02]
Peter Pears (tenor) Osian Ellis (harp)
The Wilbye Consort/Peter Pears
rec. ‘The Maltings’ Concert Hall, Snape, UK, February 1976 (Scottish Folk Songs, Gloriana, Birthday Hansel, Canticle V, Suite for Harp), March 1976 (Folk Songs); All Saints Church, Petersham, UK, October 1976 (Sacred and Profane, A Wealden Trio, Sweet was the Song, The Sycamore Tree, A Shepherd’s Carol)
AUSTRALIAN ELOQUENCE 4429448 [64:51 + 62:22] 


Experience Classicsonline

The enterprising Australian Eloquence continues to mine the riches of the Decca back catalogue. This two-disc set is a reissue of three separate LPs dating from the late 1970s, whose contents for the most part have never made it to CD. SXL 6788 contained the Birthday Hansel, Canticle V, Gloriana Lute Song and Scottish Folksongs; SXL 6793 contained the rest of the Folksongs presented here. The choral works originally appeared on SXL 6847 alongside Janet Baker’s recording of Phaedra and Britten’s Prelude and Fugue

The Pears/Ellis partnership was one that flourished late in the tenor’s career, as Britten’s last illness and inability to play the piano left Pears bereft of a regular recital partner. Pears also appeared with Murray Perahia and Graham Johnson, among others, around this time. In his characteristically perceptive booklet notes (taken from the original LP) that doyen of Britten scholars Donald Mitchell persuades us that Britten’s apparent late fascination with the voice/harp combination was not only motivated by the necessity of writing new music for the duo but in fact  represented an interest that went back throughout his career. 

Music by composers other than Britten also featured in recitals by Pears and Ellis. Schubert’s Harfenspieler Songs (appropriately enough) featured in recitals at Aldeburgh and elsewhere; there were arrangements by Britten of music by Purcell, Croft, Bach, Ravel and others; and new music composed for the duo by Lennox Berkeley, Arne Nordheim and Elizabeth Maconchy. Sadly none of these made it to disc, although recordings do exist in the archives of the Britten-Pears Library at Aldeburgh. 

I am second to none in my admiration of Pears, but I have to say that these recordings do not always represent his artistry at its most compelling. Pears was 65 when these recordings were made and we are all too aware of the effects of time on his voice. He was also recording Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with Solti around the same time so it may be that the sessions had taken their toll! The late Britten works such as Canticle V or A Birthday Hansel have a certain dry grittiness built into the music for which the tenor’s desiccated tone is not inappropriate; Britten  always followed the changing characteristics of Pears’s voice to perfection and reflected this in the music. Pears’s upper register remains as haunting as ever, so that in the high tessitura of The Salley Gardens, for instance, he brings a seamless legato and honeyed sweetness to his singing that is all the more touching for being largely absent elsewhere. The Second Lute Song from Gloriana is equally haunting in its portrayal of regret for the passing of time, even if Pears’s actual vocal quality is singularly unflattering. 

As for the Folksong arrangements, some work better than others on the harp. The arrangements originally made for guitar, for instance, have transferred effectively to the new medium (I will give my love an apple, The Sailor-boy, Master Kilby, The Soldier and the Sailor) where the guitar figuration is mirrored effectively in that for the harp.  Some of the Irish ballads such as The Last Rose of Summer and The Minstrel Boy also work well, Britten’s imagination perhaps being fired by the bardic connotations of many of the songs. However several of the arrangements originally written for piano do not lend themselves terribly convincingly to the harp. Britten’s legendary legato touch is needed here and there (O Waly, Waly) if the music is not to sound disjointed and dry. 

The songs also really need a more seductive tone than Pears was able to command at this stage in his career. 

Those looking to hear Pears at his best in the Folksongs should seek out his earlier discs of piano arrangements with Britten as his matchless accompanist. 

Osian Ellis commissioned the Suite for Harp and is the work’s dedicatee. As we might expect he gives a thoroughly idiomatic account of the music. He later recorded it for Meridian - with another Britten veteran, John Shirley-Quirk, singing some folk song arrangements - but the earlier account is marginally more incisive. 

In addition to his singing career Pears also took to directing a small vocal group of professional singers, naming it The Wilbye Consort after the illustrious madrigalist. The group performed and recorded works by the Elizabethans in addition to more contemporary works; Britten’s Sacred and Profane was premiered by the group in 1975 and is a remarkable achievement by the terminally ill composer. Here Britten cocks a snook at death; the grim humour of the music is remarkable. The four earlier choral works are beautifully sung and make a good contrast with the acerbities of Sacred and Profane

Sound is full and resonant for all items although occasionally I felt Pears’s voice was too closely miked to give a realistic impression; this unfortunately also serves to emphasise his vocal frailties. Nevertheless, a worthwhile reissue which fans of Britten - and Pears - will want to snap up. Presentation as usual for Australian Eloquence is first rate. Although no texts and translations are provided the diction throughout is so clear that this is not an issue.

Ewan McCormick


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