Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31 [24:47]
Nocturne, Op. 60 [28:35]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Dies Natalis, Op. 8 [24:58]
Mark Padmore (tenor); Stephen Bell (horn)
Britten Sinfonia/Jacqueline Shave
rec. February 2011, Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London
This disc brings together three of the key English song-cycles of the 20th Century and it combines one of our finest tenors with an ensemble whose gifts are uniquely suited to this music. In the end, though, I found it a little patchy. The anchor of the set is the playing of the Britten Sinfonia, whose strings are outstanding throughout. They have chosen an ensemble of just the right size which fits brilliantly in the soundscape, and the engineers have judged the acoustic just right. They have also captured the correct balance so that singer and instrumentalists are caught in just the right proportion. Stephen Bell’s horn playing at the beginning of the Serenade sounded a little raw to my ears, however. I’m sure it was an artistic decision rather than a consequence of unpolished preparation, but to my ears it was an ill-judged one, not an auspicious start to the disc, though it’s one he corrects for the final off-stage Epilogue. Mark Padmore is an excellent tenor, equally accomplished on the operatic stage as on the concert platform. You would think that he would be a top choice for Britten songs. Throughout the Serenade, however, he struggles to balance the dramatic and the lyrical sides of his voice so that too often he underplays the expressiveness of the writing. He sings with less of the honeyed beauty that he is famous for and more incisive bite, which works for some songs, such as the Dirge, but not so well for others, such as the opening Pastoral. However, this does have the advantage of lending his word-painting that extra edge: listen, for example, to the way he articulates “dying” in Nocturne or “sick” in Elegy. Likewise, in the gently throbbing introduction to this song the blend of the horns and strings is exceptional. Both playing and singing are at their most alluring in the concluding Keats Sonnet, seductive and beautiful with a hint of danger, leading wonderfully into the softly dying horn epilogue.
Dies Natalis is also very good, but variable for the same reasons. The strings sound glorious in the pastoral lyricism of the Intrada and the sound is excellent, bringing them present but not too close, with lovely light on the inner textures, especially the violas. Padmore takes a while to settle in, though. For the last two songs he gets the mix of lyricism and innocence just right, depicting the child’s vision of the world with wide-eyed beauty. He doesn’t quite nail this for the first two songs, though. His singing sounds consciously affected rather than showing the naivety of the art that conceals art, in fact sounding much too, well, grown-up! Everyone has a much better time in the Nocturne, however, surely the greatest of all English song-cycles. Padmore judges this one just right, responding to the mood of each poem with vocal colour that is innocent, beautiful, frenzied or comical as required. The solo “obbligato” instruments all sound fantastic too, each having a whale of a time in its moment in the sun. The description of the “lovely boy” in the Coleridge poem is almost too alluring to be comfortable, and the use of the harp for this song is sensational, sitting perfectly in the soundscape of the recording. The cycle rises to a powerful dramatic climax at Wordsworth’s reflection on the September Massacres, the timpani sounding as though they are beating on the inside of the insomniac’s brain, and the Owen song has a wonderfully alluring cor anglais. The final Shakespeare setting is a triumphant culmination, a celebration of the power of dreams played with appropriate majesty and sung with rapt intensity.
So there is a lot to enjoy here and this disc is undoubtedly very good; however Padmore’s slightly inconsistent approach means that, for me, it falls short of the - admittedly very high - hopes I had for it. For the Britten at least, Bostridge with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic still win the prize for brilliant singing and outstanding word-painting with perfectly judged accompaniment.
Simon Thompson 

There is a lot to enjoy here. 

see also review by John Quinn (June 2012 Recording of the Month) 

Discography & Review Index: Serenade ~~ Nocturne ~~ Dies Natalis