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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise D911 (1827)*[79:26]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Man is for the Woman Made (arr. Britten) [1:55]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Folksong Arrangements:
The Foggy, Foggy Dew [2:46]
O Waly, Waly [3:52]
Sweet Polly Oliver [2:39]
Sally in our Alley [4:15]
Tom Bowling [5:13]
The Lincolnshire Poacher [2:21]
The Ploughboy [2:29]
Oliver Cromwell [1:14]
Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten discuss Winterreise **[12:43]
Frühlingstraum [4:50]
Im Dorfe [5:28]
Der Leiermann [2:27]
Peter Pears (tenor)/Benjamin Britten (piano)
rec. * 9-11 September 1970, at Snape Maltings; at an informal concert given to an audience of friends at the Riverside studios, London and first broadcast on BBC Two, 21 June 1964; **Extracted from Schubert Workshops 1 & 2, first broadcast on BBC Television, September 1968.
German texts and English translation (Winterreise) included
DECCA 0743257 [118:53]

 

Experience Classicsonline


This DVD is a potent remainder of two things. First and foremost it’s an important souvenir of the unique artistry, and partnership, of Britten and Pears. Secondly, however, it takes us back to a time – a bygone age, it seems - when the BBC used to take music seriously and make high quality television programmes of and about music and without any of the vapid chatter about which Patrick Waller is the latest to complain.

The main offering is a performance, shot in good quality colour, of Schubert’s great masterpiece, Winterreise. The project was masterminded by John Culshaw and the presentation is a little unusual but highly effective. Pears is shown singing each song against a series of dimly lit abstract backgrounds. He’s dressed in a full-length brown worsted caped coat, looking every bit the nineteenth-century traveller. There’s nothing gimmicky about this. The background scenery is unobtrusive and quite subtly lit and Pears doesn’t act in any way. He stands still, as if giving a recital – indeed, he’s more physically animated in the informal concert that we view later on the disc. The one exception is ‘Mut!’ towards the end of the cycle, when he’s seen in profile at the very start, turns abruptly through ninety degrees to face the camera when he begins to sing and then turns back as soon as he’s finished. I found this whole presentation of te cycle very effective. I’m a little less sure about the short synopses in English, which are spoken by Pears before each song. The problem here is Pears’s delivery, which sounds a bit arch to me but this is by no means an impediment to enjoyment.

Interestingly, Britten is never seen throughout the performance. This seems to have been Culshaw’s idea However, in his very interesting notes Philip Reed mentions the suggestion by Christopher Headington, Pears’s biographer, that Britten had reservations about the concept and only took part on condition he was out of camera shot. As Reed says, it’s hard to see how he could have been incorporated into the visual concept but his playing is a very present factor at all times. One practical point that occurred to me later was to wonder how they’d co-ordinated the whole thing. Pears was filmed in a pretty dim light, which must have made it hard for Britten to see the music. Moreover, in the folksong performances that come later, I noticed how often Britten snatches a quick glance at Pears to be sure of where exactly he is in the music. I wonder how feasible that was during Winterreise?

The performance itself is pretty marvellous. Of course, Pears, who was by then a few months past his sixtieth birthday, can in no way suggest a young man, either vocally or physically. In the discussion that comes at the end of the DVD, he remarks that he didn’t essay the work until he was nearly fifty. It’s “not a young man’s music”, he says and he comments that the cycle contains “the experience of a long lifetime.” He and Britten made a studio recording of the work for Decca in October 1963 (see review). I’ve long regarded that intensely personal interpretation very highly, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be the first version I’d reach for off the shelves. Philip Reed suggests that seven years later Pears’s voice has darkened somewhat for this telecast and I think I’d agree with that.

But if neither vocally nor temperamentally does he appear as a lovelorn youth, he brings countless insights and subtleties to his interpretation. I found this to be a direct, riveting performance into which I was quickly drawn. There are a few occasions when his technique seems a touch fallible. One such occurs in the last line of ‘Der Lindenbaum’, where the pitch bends on the word “fändest” under the emphasis Pears applies. But any such defects are quibbles, frankly, when set against the intensity of the performance and, indeed, if that’s the price one pays for the singer’s involvement then I’m happy to pay it.

‘Wasserflut’ is intense, but in a properly controlled way and I love the gentle lilt he brings to the first two stanzas of ‘Rückblick’ and to the last one. Perhaps a touch more vocal lightness would have been welcome in ‘Irrlicht’ but the lightness is definitely there, as required, in most of ‘Frühlingstraum’.

As the cycle progresses, the tension builds incrementally. Pears brings suspense, allied to fine control, to ‘Im Dorfe’. This is a dark, tense song and Pears distils a palpable atmosphere yet at no time does he overdo things. The last four songs are magnificent In ‘Das Wirtshaus’ Pears sings with resignation. The very restraint he shows is powerful in itself. In ‘Mut!’ he gathers his resources for one last attempt at resolve. After this ’Die Nebensonnen’ is heart-rendingly intense. Perhaps one has heard more withdrawn accounts of ‘Der Leiermann’ but Pears is still highly convincing.

I’ve not so much as mentioned the contribution of Benjamin Britten save to comment that he’s never seen during this performance. But it’s most definitely not a case of out of sight, out of mind. His piano playing is as important to the unfolding drama as is the singing of Pears. In the subsequent discussion with Pears he comments how little there is on the printed page in Winterreise and, as a result, how much is left to the performers. His pianism is an example of art that conceals art. He never draws unnecessary attention to the piano part but one instinctively feels that everything is right.

Listen, for example, to the subtlety of his playing in the final stanza of ‘Gute Nacht’, where Pears fines down his voice from the more forthright style he’s adopted hitherto in the song and Britten not only matches him in this but paves the way in the manner in which he plays the brief, magical transition to the verse. Time and again in this cycle Schubert provides the briefest of introductions, placing a huge responsibility on the pianist to set the mood. Britten unfailingly gets it right. One example of this is the superbly weighted chords at the start of ‘Das Wirtshaus’. Another, and very different, example of his artistry is his dramatic contribution to ‘Rückblick’. In short, throughout the cycle we have a masterly display by a musician with a deep understanding both of Schubertian style and of the art of the accompanist.

In addition to this superb Schubert performance we see some archive film, in black and white, of Pears and Britten giving a little informal recital – they wear casual dress – for a small invited audience. Apart from the one Purcell item their programme consists of a selection of some of the best of Britten’s folksong arrangements. Sometimes I feel that these Britten arrangements are just a bit too knowing and sophisticated for the essentially simple songs. That’s possibly true of The Ploughboy, which, in this arrangement, seems to lose some of the biting satire of the original song. The remainder, however, show Britten at his imaginative best. Pears sings with character and fine expression and Britten accompanies superbly. Out of the whole selection I’d single out particularly Tom Bowling, of which Pears gives a heartfelt performance, singing it as the noble elegy it is. I suspect that the original broadcast was live because Oliver Cromwell is an obvious encore, sung after the credits have rolled, and you can actually hear Pears suggesting it to Britten and then see Britten searching for the music. The whole recital is delightful and very spontaneous.

The discussion between the two artists of three songs from Winterreise is a real archive piece. The booklet tells us that this film is “Taken directly from unrestored masters” and the film is certainly somewhat grainy, though perfectly acceptable, as is the sound. Strangely, the item about ‘Frühlingstraum’  is in rather rudimentary colour while the remainder of the feature is in black and white. Britten and Pears are shown seated at the piano, possibly in their home at The Red House. They perform extracts from the songs in question and use these as a frame for some general comments about the cycle as a whole. It’s very interesting and well worth having, especially as an appendage to the complete performance.

This DVD is a priceless document, showing two great creative artists interpreting one of the supreme masterpieces of the lieder repertoire and then, in more relaxed vein, in some of Britten’s own pieces. Theirs was a remarkable musical partnership and here we have an invaluable reminder of that partnership.

John Quinn





 


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