Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Les Illuminations, Op. 18 (1939) [22:20]
Serenade, Op. 31 (1943) [23:20]
Nocturne, Op. 60 (1958) [28:23]
Jerry Hadley (tenor); Anthony Halstead (horn); in Op. 60: Keith Rubach (bassoon); Rachel Masters (harp); Stephen Roberts (horn); Peter Hamburger (timpani); Paul Arden Taylor (cor anglais); Michael Hirst (flute); David Campbell (clarinet)
English String Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. August 1989, Great Hall, University of Birmingham, U.K.
NIMBUS NI5234 [74:13]
American tenor Jerry Hadley made several high-profile recordings, including two with Bernstein, La Bohème and Candide, Britten’s War Requiem with Kurt Masur, and a very fine Verdi Requiem en Telarc, conducted by Robert Shaw. He was also active, though less so, on the recital platform. He withdrew from public performance for some five years due to personal problems, but a few tentative reappearances were followed by his death, in 2007, aged fifty-five, apparently by his own hand.
This disc opens with a very fine performance indeed of Les Illuminations. Hadley’s voice is more suited to heroic operatic tenor roles than the majority of those who undertake this work, and a listener’s reaction to this performance may well be coloured by that. The voice and the way it is used is closer to Jon Vickers, say, than it is to Philip Langridge, though it doesn’t really resemble either of them. There are a number of places in the score where the singer is given the option of avoiding very low notes, and Hadley takes advantage of this every time. Better this, I think, than unconvincing noises right at the bottom of the voice. The words are very clear, emphasising his occasionally imperfect French pronunciation. Does he manage to penetrate Rimbaud’s rather effete and languid world? I think he does, particularly in the quieter songs. “Phrase”, against held harmonics in the accompaniment, is beautifully sung, with a particularly affecting use of the head voice, and the following “Antique” is just as fine. An audible intake of breath during two beats of silence in “Royauté” is an example of the singer “acting” the songs rather more than we might be used to. This is not exaggerated though, and if you can take it, this performance will bring much pleasure. The accompaniment is brilliantly executed by the English String Orchestra, and the recording, though quite reverberant, allows us to hear everything we should.
The Serenade also receives a very fine performance, though some will feel that Hadley’s rather more robust approach diminishes the nocturnal atmosphere. I was bothered also by one or two aspects of enunciation, with final consonants a particular problem. In the first song, for example, the poet apparently evokes “a monstra selephant”, and later invites us “In the cool air to sit an chat”. But these are minor points in the context of such fine singing, spot-on tuning and fine control of line. Hadley is particularly well suited, perhaps predictably, to the strong central section of the second song – “Blow, bugle, blow” – though the main tempo for this song militates against the Maestoso marking. The last two songs are not quite so convincing: “Hymn” is a little short on lightness of touch, and “Sonnet” doesn’t quite lull us to sleep as it should, the singing just that bit too strong and assertive, even in piano and pianissimo. Anthony Halstead’s contribution is absolutely superb throughout, as fine as I have heard, from his wonderfully atmospheric “Prologue” and “Epilogue” to his hair-raisingly brassy appearance in the middle of “Dirge”. The gaps between each song could be shorter.
The scoring of the Nocturne, for strings and seven obbligato instruments, is obviously one reason why the work is the least frequently performed of the three on this disc. It is a difficult work to bring off in concert, too, starting where the Serenade left off – with the singer falling asleep – though the dreams are more sinister, sometimes nearer to nightmare. The atmosphere of the work is more fragile, the scoring sometimes so insubstantial that one wonders how it can work. Hadley’s vocal style is less appropriate here. He finds it difficult, for example, at the outset of the work, to create the necessary nocturnal atmosphere. He seems less at ease throughout, less spontaneous with the words. Moments such as “Unnumbered and enormous polypi” in the second song, and “More serene than a nest of nightingales?” in the next to last, pass by without the extra illumination we are used to from other performances. He is, again, most successful in the more direct, louder songs, and he takes the decision – quite rightly in my view – to respect the notes at the declamation of “Sleep no more!” at the end of the timpani-accompanied Wordsworth setting. The strings play brilliantly throughout, and the individual instrumentalists yield nothing to the competition in their solo passages. Even so, there’s not quite the same vividness as in the composer’s own performance, where you can almost see (or hear) the sub aquatic bubbles created by the sea monster in the third song. Curiously, in a work where all the songs are linked together, they are not separately banded. This is a serious disadvantage.
Britten scholars and admirers will never want to be without the composer’s own performances with Peter Pears, and they are available in this same coupling. John Mark Ainsley’s performances on EMI were well received, but I never got on with them. Martyn Hill, on the other hand, on Hyperion, is superb, though some will find Richard Hickox a little too interventionist. Philip Langridge on Naxos is outstanding, the voice unmistakable. These are preferable, I think, to the present disc, but its alternative view is valid and important, and those selfsame scholars and admirers who have not already heard it are encouraged to do so.

William Hedley
A different way of looking at Britten’s three magnificent song cycles.