At first sight it might seem that with this CD Susan Gritton
is treading a little on Tenor Territory but in fact most of
the music is at least as much associated with the soprano voice.
It’s true that only the Delius piece is actually specified as being for tenor and orchestra but the Finzi, is mainly associated with the tenor voice – I’ve only heard it once before sung by a soprano – and the association of Peter Pears, in particular, with Les Illuminations has secured it a firm place in the tenor repertoire. But that work is described as being “for soprano or tenor”. It was premièred by and dedicated to Sophie Wyss and has been performed and recorded frequently by sopranos over the years. Nowadays Dies Natalis is almost always sung by a tenor but, in fact, it was premièred by a soprano – Elsie Suddaby – and its first recording was made by Joan Cross. The performance by soprano that I’ve heard is the 1996 recording by Rebecca Evans and Vernon Handley for Conifer (7505 51285 2), which I presume is no longer available. Both Dies Natalis and Britten’s Quatre chansons françaises are for “high voice”. So, whatever claims tenors may have made on these pieces over the years, there’s absolutely no reason why a soprano shouldn’t sing them.
This new recording of the Finzi begins auspiciously; the ‘Intrada’ is played with gentle eloquence by the BBC Symphony under Edward Gardner’s assured direction. Susan Gritton’s tone at the start of ‘Rhapsody’ is pleasing but right from the start she employs a significant amount of vibrato. Furthermore, when she goes up to the top of her register at “In their splendour and glory” she spreads the note on “glory”. This isn’t the only occasion that a top note is produced in this way. It soon became apparent that unless I followed the words very closely they were very indistinct due to the singer’s vibrato. I admired the gentle, vulnerable sound at “The corn was orient”, where the orchestral support is similarly sympathetic, and at “O what venerable creatures” the words were sufficiently distinct, proving that Miss Gritton can sing clearly.
All too often, however, as the work unfolded the words were blurred and this, to me, is a fatal flaw, especially when one recalls how important words in general were to Finzi, that most discerning lover of English literature. The third movement, ‘The Rapture’, begins with some nice, light and vigorous playing by the orchestra but throughout the first stanza I’m afraid I found it almost impossible to make out what Miss Gritton is singing. She produces some lovely sounds in the following movement, ‘Wonder’, but again there’s no clarity to the words and that vitiates the impact of Finzi’s music, despite the excellence of the accompaniment. The concluding movement, ‘The Salutation’ is somewhat better and all the performers produce a gentle sense of rapture. Other listeners may find the diction issue less serious but despite its incidental beauties – and a fine account of the orchestral score – I’m afraid I find this Dies Natalis uncompetitive on account of the obtrusive vibrato and lack of clear diction.
For comparison I sampled the afore-mentioned recording by Rebecca Evans and found that much more satisfactory in terms of clarity. Miss Evans’s vibrato is less generous, I think, than that of Miss Gritton. And while there are occasions in her performance also when the words are not quite as clear as they would be with a tenor – at “In their splendour and glory”, for example – that’s due, I believe, to the inherently different characteristics of the soprano and tenor voices. And overall Rebecca Evans articulates the text more clearly than Susan Gritton.
I’m afraid that the issue of diction carries over into Les Illuminations. In the second song, the fast-moving ‘Villes’ the first line – “Ce sont des villes!” is utterly indistinct. Though matters improve from here on it’s still not easy to follow the words. To reassure myself that I wasn’t being unfair I took down the 1963 recording by Peter Pears with Britten conducting (Decca 417 153-2). I know Pears’ vocal timbre isn’t to everyone’s taste but the words are completely clear.
In the next song, ‘Phrase’, the tempo is much slower and here the words are much clearer and Susan Gritton’s vocal sound itself is pleasing. Even more attractive is ‘Antique’ while ‘Being Beauteous’, though again suffering from cloudy diction, displays Miss Gritton’s ability to sing long lines with a lovely tone. In fact, the sound of her voice in this song is sensuous, which is just what’s wanted. Sensuality is also the chief characteristic in the final song, ‘Départ’; music in a slower tempo seems more suited to her voice. So there’s a lot to enjoy in this performance of Les Illuminations, despite the times when the words are less than ideally lucid. As was the case in Dies Natalis Edward Gardner proves himself to be an adept and considerate accompanist.
Britten composed Quatre chansons françaises when he was a mere fourteen years old. These pieces are astonishingly precocious, especially in the scoring for chamber orchestra. They lay unperformed during Britten’s lifetime and it was not until 1980 that the songs were first heard in public, sung by Heather Harper. They are well done here and I was especially taken with the Bergian first song, ‘Nuits de juin’. Here Gritton produces a lovely sound and the orchestral support is excellent.
The Delius piece, A Late Lark, was specified by its composer as being for tenor and orchestra so, strictly speaking, Susan Gritton is “poaching” but I don’t think anyone will mind because this languorous piece seems well suited to her voice.
So this disc is something of a mixed bag. The issues I have
with diction and, in places, what I feel is the excessive vibrato,
constitute an obstacle for me. Others may well take a different
view, in which case there is a great deal to enjoy here. For
me, however, singing is about the communication of music and
words and I don’t think that’s completely achieved here. Documentation
and sound quality are up to the usual high Chandos standard.