Benjamin BRITTEN(1913-1976) Britten in Scotland: The Complete Scottish Songs
A Birthday Hansel, Op.92 (1975) [19:28]
Who are these children? (1969) [20:53]
Cradle Song (Sleep, my darling, sleep) (1942) [3:16]
O that I’d ne’er married (1922) [1:27]
Ca’ the Yowes (1959) [1:49]
There’s none to soothe (1946) [1:49]
O can ye sew cushions (1942) [2:21]
The Bonny Earl o’ Murray (1942) [3:14]
Bonny at Morn (1976) [4:03]
Come you not from Newcastle? (1946) [1:19]
Dawtie’s Devotion (1969) [1:12]
The Gully (1969) [0:56]
Tradition (1969) [0:52]
Four Burns Songs (arr. Colin Matthews) (1975) [8:50]
Mark Wilde (tenor), Lucy Wakeford (harp: Hansel, Bonny at Morn),
David Owen Norris (piano)
rec. Turner Sims Concert Hall, University of Southampton, 17-19
It is great to have all the Scottish songs by Benjamin Britten
on one disc. However it is not only the completeness that is
important. Most of the works on this CD have been relatively
rarely recorded. At present the Arkiv catalogue lists only three
other versions of The Birthday Hansel and five versions
of Who are these Children? I cannot find a reference
to the ‘Four Burns Songs’. So it is a welcome addition.
Add to this, the committed and often moving performances from
all three soloists and one has a ‘must-have’ CD
for all Britten enthusiasts.
A Birthday Hansel was composed in 1975 to celebrate Her
Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s seventy-fifth
birthday. It was one of the composer’s last works. The
song-cycle contained seven songs in the Scottish dialect culled
from the collected poems of Robert (‘Rabbie’) Burns.
Out of interest, the word ‘Hansel' means a gift that is
given to someone before the start of a new enterprise, or it
can mean a welcome gift.
Britten does not utilise ‘existing’ folksongs, nor
does he write pastiche tunes. What he has achieved is a synthesis
of the distinguishing features of Scottish folk and dance music
and applies it to Burn’s poems. In the present recording,
Mark Wilde varies the ‘richness’ or ‘depth’
of the dialect which I think is a good plan. Unremitting ‘Harry
Lauder’ would be difficult to stomach. The harp part is
much more integral to the work than mere accompaniment: the
Britten website notes that it employs ‘a wide range of
devices and effects to colourful effect as well as providing
the necessary transitions from song to song.’ It is this
equilibrium between singer and instrumentalist that makes A
Birthday Hansel so effective. It is convincingly performed
by Mark Wilde and Lucy Wakeford.
The first performance of A Birthday Hansel was on 16
January 1976 at Uphall which is near Sandringham. The performers
were Peter Pears and the harpist Osian Ellis. A recording was
later made at The Maltings, Snape by the same artists and was
released as part of the Britten
Edition on Decca.
After Britten’s death, the composer Colin Matthews made
an arrangement for tenor and piano of four of the songs from
A Birthday Hansel. It was published as Four Burns
Songs. If I am honest, I prefer these settings to the original!
Finally, Chris Ball has written in the sleeve notes that Britten
used an ‘old’ edition of Burns’ poems which
had a degree of anglicising of the ‘Lallans Scots’
dialect. He states that in A Birthday Hansel these words
have not been corrected: however in the ‘Four Burns Songs’
the text has been corrected to follow the version in ‘The
Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns Bi-Centenary Edition
The liner-notes gives the listener a good clue for approaching
Who are these children?: it is best to regard this difficult
song-cycle as ‘two works in one’: it is a balance
between the ‘bairn’s’ songs and those of the
‘world of war and pain’. In fact there are eight
songs that explore ‘the happier, more innocent aspects
of childhood’ and the remaining four examine ‘the
plight of children in the context of violence and war’.
William Soutar is one of the great writers of the Scottish Literary
Renaissance - alongside Hugh MacDiarmid. I accept that some
of his political views may not appeal to everyone: neither will
his pacifism. However, to be fair to Soutar, he did serve in
the Royal Navy during the First World War, so at least he has
experience of some of the subjects he explores in his poetry.
Yet the song-cycle itself, I find a little harder to come to
terms with. I find that it lacks coherence. Some of the ‘songs’
are very short - one is just 34 seconds. Perhaps it is the mixing
of the violence and innocence that I find ‘too near the
I have listened to this a number of times in this version and
also in Daniel Norman’s recording
and long felt that it is a difficult work to bring off. However
I believe that Mark Wilde approaches the ‘dialect’
issue well. It is a fine performance of an often morbid and
always challenging piece.
The present recording includes three additional poems from the
cycle that were not used in the final arrangement. Three of
the shorter dialect songs were set - ‘Dawtie’s Devotion’,
‘The Gully’ and ‘Tradition’. Britten
wished these settings to be performed as separate songs and
insisted that they were not to be incorporated into the song-cycle.
Finally, Naxos feature all the ‘Scottish folksongs’,
including the beautiful ‘Ca’ the Yowes’. However
the lovely ‘O Can ye sew cushions?’ and the charming
‘Come you not from Newcastle’ should not be missed.
One last treat is the attractive Cradle Song (Sleep, my darling,
sleep) by Louis MacNeice who squeezes into this collection as
Lastly, I note that the assumption is made that listeners will
have access to either the Internet or a range of Scottish poetry
books for finding the texts of the songs. Interestingly the
Naxos website uses the word ‘lyrics’ as its link
to the poems!
I never really associate Soutar and MacNeice as ‘lyricists’.
The sound quality is good, the singing is effective and as I
have noted above Mark Wilde does not overdo the ‘local
colour’. Piano and harp both contribute to the overall
value of this excellent and often moving CD.
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