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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
CD 1
Folk Songs with Harp: English and French (arr. Britten)
Two Scottish Folk Songs (arr. Britten)
Gloriana - second lute song (arr. harp and tenor)
CD 2
A Birthday Hansel Op.92 (original version)
Canticle V: The Death of St Narcissus Op.89
Suite for Harp Op.83
Sacred and Profane Eight Mediaeval Lyrics Op.91
Wealden Trio
Sweet was the Song
The Sycamore Tree
A Shepherd’s Carol
Sir Peter Pears (tenor)
Osian Ellis (harp)
The Wilbye Consort/Peter Pears
rec. 1976-1977. ADD
full track-list at end of review
DECCA ELOQUENCE 4429448 [64:51 + 62:22]
Experience Classicsonline

The ‘bottom line’ for this Decca Eloquence double CD is whether or not you like the voice of Sir Peter Pears. It’s a case of hate, love or tolerate. Pears’ voice was often described as ‘reedy’ or even ‘raucous’ but I recommend listening to him across his whole career and not just in Britten in order to gain some sense of proportion.
His Oedipus under the Stravinsky with German forces (Archipel ARPCD 0228 rec. 1951) is certainly the right voice for the ‘opera-oratorio’ and it must be admitted that some Britten roles could not have come about without that voice.
The portrayal of Peter Grimes in the opera as a sensitive but unstable soul - at odds with Crabbe’s poem - needed Pears and revived British opera after a terrible war. Quint in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ was also built around the many sides of Pears’ voice and character, including menace and cunning. Although I like the overall sound of the Naxos version with Langridge I always go back to the Decca mono as a reference point and for that extra touch of evil. Captain Vere in ‘Billy Budd’ shows Pears at his best in the more emotional moments of a commander in crisis like no other tenor but listen to other versions. Finally, could Britten have conceived Aschenbach in ‘Death in Venice’ without Pears’ ageing voice and sheer talent in switching faces so many times? The answer is ‘No’.
Having said all of the above, I cannot really bathe this issue in even autumn sunlight. There are more negatives than positives. In the case of CD1 we hear the rather uneasy sound of a great tenor who should really have retired as a singer a few months before Britten’s death in 1976. His voice is out of training and condition in this 1976 recording so he resorts to mannerism. His pitching is dodgy. He might have done well to rest and train up.
The Folk Songs with Harp (22 English/French and 2 Scottish) show how hard Britten worked in ill health to transfer, as far as was possible, his own piano parts to harp. This was done for Osian Ellis. Even so the composer’s frustration at being laid-up shows through. Given that the folk songs had spanned the Britten-Pears partnership in numerous recordings, as encores and as a comfort zone at home with house guests it is understandable that this project should have happened. However is the result on this disc appealing? I have been a fan of the folk songs from the earliest recordings and I still have some now-deleted BBC and Aldeburgh material in my archives. With that said I hate to say that CD1 fails but fail it does. Osian Ellis reflects Britten’s arrangements for the harp which he used so subtly or sometimes heroically like no other English composer. However Sir Peter’s voice is just too far decayed. It does not help that the recording pushes the harp so far back. Had it been accorded more prominence Ellis’s unique fidelity and technique might have helped rescue a rather sad effort.
Track 8, ‘The Minstrel Boy’ is an embarrassing affair (among others) and the producer, Ray Minshull, should really have delayed the project for better times. Sir Peter’s work with the Wilbye Consort showed what a great musician and strong man he was – even deprived of his instrument as well as his partner. Most singers retire long before he did and that is why I could wish that CD1 had never been made.
Even in the Gloriana Lute Song (track 25) there are pitifully few accurate notes. Running it alongside Pears with Bream on RCA made me very sad … I am seldom that on MusicWeb work. Harsh, yes but sad is perhaps a sort of compliment to all concerned. As recorded music, however, CD1 is a flop.
But all is not lost by a long chalk. CD 2 features Pears getting old but ‘A Birthday Hansel’ Op. 92 has that accurate pitch with fun which I associate with him. Hearing ‘Canticle V’ Op.89 in perfect Decca balance between the tenor and soloist with the very ill composer’s notes to hand from the 1975 premiere is bliss. Britten used strains - in both senses - of Pears’ voice that he heard in ‘Death in Venice’ to complete his Canticles to a T.S. Eliot text. However whereas ‘Canticle IV’ used the familiar ‘Journey of the Magi’, Britten turned to an obscure early Eliot piece for the last. The texts are not enclosed in the insert - and would have made for a bulky package - but Decca might consider a download service by subscription if copyright allows.
We then come to the early ‘Death of St Narcissus’. One can understand why Eliot put it aside in view of how he honed his genius after crossing the Atlantic. It is an extremely dense and complex work with imagery which clearly meant a lot to Britten (“he could not live men’s ways”). Thus many things came together in a short work meaning oh so much.
The ‘Suite for Harp’ Op.83 (1969) had been written for Osian Ellis and with Ellis because Britten’s view of the harp from ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ throughout his career was more intense than had been the orthodox tradition. The composer, Pears and other friends understood that Ellis’s mastery of the full Welsh harp offered new sounds.
After the Suite Britten, with patchy health, needed all his strength to complete ‘Death in Venice’ and was obliged to have some ‘spadework’ done by Steuart Bedford and Colin Matthews. His manuscripts were unusually untidy under heavy medication but the result was what Britten wanted. In some ways the delays in composing the work allowed Britten and Pears to deepen the decaying of Aschenbach so Pears’ ageing voice could be put to maximum dramatic use. The harp was set to work conventionally to represent ‘Serenissima’ but, yet more tellingly in the Phaedrus section of the last act when Aschenbach is dying and Tadzio is playing on the beach.
I argue that Britten saw how effective a ‘failing’ voice in the context of complex homo-erotic repression could be in canticle form with a harp and the text was there in early Eliot. The result was so simple and so brief but oddly bigger than Claggart’s scenes of self-loathing in ‘Billy Budd’. This is genius for sure, but a very disciplined genius. It is so welcome on this CD with Pears and Ellis providing both authenticity and deep insight into a consistently great composer.
‘A Birthday Hansel’ Op.92 (1975) is placed before the Canticle on CD2 but works well with the ‘Suite for Harp’ following; the meat in the sandwich. If this was deliberate on the part of the producer then he deserves a compliment. Op.92 is here presented in the original version. Britten set the seven Burns poems at the request of HM The Queen as a 75th present for the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The whole point of ‘A Birthday Hansel’ is fun. Burns wrote far better poems than were set by Britten but part of the joke is to have them performed in Received Pronunciation English rather than cod-Scots. The ‘Queen Mum’ was from the ancient Scottish family of Bowes-Lyon but found herself as queen consort to George VI of the UK and empire after the abdication of Edward VIII, then became the mother of Queen Elizabeth II. Maybe it is not a great work but it is enormous fun and is so well crafted.
The Op. 91 ‘Sacred and Profane’ of 1975 uses eight mediaeval lyrics for a small vocal ensemble. The singers are conducted by Pears in that last burst of energy Britten achieved after ‘Death in Venice’ between 1974 and his death in 1976.
Stephen Walsh’s notes are dead right about the tendency to see a composer’s last works as being ‘valedictory’ being untrue in Britten’s case (like Beethoven, Bach and Schubert). Maybe people just like imposing a comforting tidiness.
In the Op.90 ‘Suite … A Time there Was’, there is some heart-tugging sadness in the last movement but there is even more striving and discipline. Then a very ill composer followed up with Opp. 91 and 92 on this disc, Op.93 ‘Phaedra’, is a major cantata of astonishing originality and power. Op.94 is the String Quartet No. 4. Op.95 is the ‘Welcome Ode’ for children’s voices and orchestra.
This was a composer who intended to compose a lot more. Britten’s emphasis on 12-tone style in ‘Sacred and Profane’ and the drifting into this discipline in ‘Phaedra’ support my point and that of Stephen Walsh.
Although I judge CD 1 a flop with the exception of real fans and historians I can recommend the issue for CD 2 and how it is set out. It should cause Britten enthusiasts to investigate that late flowering after ‘Death in Venice’. If one is allergic to the voice of Peter Pears - even in decline – well, too bad.
After some time away from MusicWeb, I return with my usual technical whinges. This otherwise excellent release is rather spoilt by low-level rumble in the Wilbye Consort pieces which engineers Kenneth Wilkinson and Simon Eadon really should have filtered. I used a Beresford DAC direct to amp but had to resort to a Fostex mixer to take out the rumble without wrecking the glorious low register singing.
This is a very important release at a budget price and is a ‘must have’ for the pleasure of genius. Stick with this release. It might be patchy but it is important and beautiful.
Stephen Hall

see also review by Ewan McCormick

Britten discography
Track List

CD 1
Folk Songs with Harp (arranged by Benjamin Britten):-
The Ash Grove
Little Sir William
Come ye not from Newcastle?
will give my love an apple
The Last Rose of Summe
Early one morning
There's none to soothe
How sweet the answer
The Minstrel Boy
Oft in the stilly night
The Sally Gardens
Sweet Polly Oliver
O Waly, Waly (Somerset Folk song
The Plough Boy
The Foggy, Foggy Dew
The Sailor-boy
Master Kilby
The Soldier and the Sailor
Il est quelqu'un sur terre
La Belle est au jardin
Le roi s'en va-t'en chasse
Two Scottish Folk songs(arranged by Benjamin Britten):-
O can ye sew cushions?
Ca the yowes
Gloriana: Second lute song (Act I Scene 2)
Sir Peter Pears (tenor)
Osian Ellis (harp)
CD 2
A Birthday Hansel, Op. 92 (original version):-
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):-
Sir Peter Pears (tenor)
Osian Ellis (harp)
Suite for Harp, Op. 83:-
Osian Ellis (harp)
Sacred and Profane - Eight Medieval Lyrics, Op. 91:-
St. Godric's Hymn
I Mon Waxe Wod
Lenten is come
The Long Night
Yif lc of Luve Can
Ye that Pasen By
A Death
A Wealden Trio - Christmas Song of the Women:-
Sweet was the Song
The Sycamore Tree
A Shepherd's Carol
The Wilbye Consort
Sir Peter Pears


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