Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op 74 (1965) [26:03]
Tit for Tat (1929-1931) [8:38]
Folk song arrangements:
The Plough Boy [1:43]
The foggy, foggy dew [2:02]
Tom Bowling [4:27]
O Waly, Waly [3:17]
Oliver Cromwell [0:43]
The Ash Grove [2:23]
The Salley Gardens [2:28]
There’s none to soothe [1:39]
Little Sir William [2:43]
Ca’ the yowes [4:10]
Roderick Williams (baritone); Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 4-6 January 2011, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
NAXOS 8.572600 [60:45]
This disc couples a masterpiece from Britten’s maturity and songs written in his youth. The latter were revived and gathered together as a set in his later years. Britten wrote very little for baritone, but I do think it a pity that rather than seek an interesting work by another composer to complement these two works, it was decided to complete the disc with folk-songs. Beautiful though these arrangements are, many collectors will have quite enough Oliver Cromwells and Little Sir Williams on the shelves, thank you. They are, however, beautifully sung here. There is a very brisk Plough Boy, and Roderick Williams tones in his voice beautifully for the gentler numbers. Ca’ the yowes, a minor masterpiece, is magnificently grand. Overall, the delivery is simple, neither folk-song nor art-song, and refreshingly avoiding the coy or arch in the likes of The foggy, foggy dew. No, Williams presents them unadorned, and with a beautiful legato line, as a series of lovely tunes with inventive and striking accompaniments. Others, some of whom set them up as quasi-operatic scenes, do inject more life into some of the songs, not always to their advantage.
Tit for Tat, a set of five short songs to poems by Walter de la Mare, was first performed in 1969 by John Shirley-Quirk with the composer at the piano. I have in my head the sound of Shirley-Quirk singing these songs, but can’t for the life of me remember where or when it comes from. The songs were written when Britten was in his teens, and he had only recently gathered them together and, with minimal editing, prepared them for publication. They are accomplished works that can, on the whole, be enjoyed without making allowances for the composer’s age. There is not the psychological insight - neither into the poems nor into the mind of the listener - that you find in the mature composer’s vocal music. Nor is the piano part so developed. Listen however to the second song, “Autumn”: everything that was to come is there in embryonic form. It would be easy to exaggerate the claims of these songs, but presented so cleanly and with such understanding as do Williams and his superb pianist, Iain Burnside, they make just the effect the mature composer surely intended.
Philip Lancaster’s booklet essay casts plenty of light on the programme. Walter de la Mare’s poems are sadly not given, but the folk-song texts do appear, as do the texts of the masterly Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. This work was composed for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and is dedicated to him. The dedication reads “For Dieter: the past and the future. It is a proper, integrated song-cycle, but which is sung without a break. Poems and proverbs alternate, creating a continuous text which was chosen and arranged in order by Peter Pears, no doubt with input from the composer. Words and music combine to create a cycle that maintains a single mood throughout its length, one of melancholy observation. In his book Britten, Voice and Piano, Stephen Johnson recounts how the relationship between Fischer-Dieskau and Britten, though nourished by mutual admiration, was not an easy one. The sessions for their Decca recording of December 1965 were by all accounts particularly fraught, but this is hardly audible in the finished result, which is a performance of extraordinary mastery. Fischer-Dieskau is magnificent, and the composer’s piano playing is miraculous. Listen, for example, in the ppp quavers that introduce A Poison Tree, how he manages to conceal the inconvenient fact that a piano works by hammers striking on keys. This is the kind of piano playing that prompted Gerald Moore, in his book Am I Too Loud?, to proclaim Britten as “the world’s greatest living accompanist”. Britten’s recorded legacy is essential for any admirer of his work, but happily the era is now long gone when attempts by other performers to stamp their own personality on the music seemed like an affront to the composer’s memory. Iain Burnside is outstandingly fine on this disc. It seems almost insulting to state that his playing is technically impeccable, but I do state it, whilst adding that he is profoundly in tune with the music and with the singer’s needs. Roderick Williams gives a performance of great vision, beautifully sung, that will satisfy any listener who discovers the work from this performance. In general, Fischer-Dieskau employs a wider range of vocal colour that allows him, in The ChimneySweeper, for example, to play the part of the oppressed child with remarkable vividness. Another example would be at the line “And blights with plagues the marriage hearse” in London, where Williams doesn’t really match Fischer-Dieskau’s disillusioned bitterness. Williams is slower, too, the song hardly reflecting the composer’s marking of “Very agitated”. If this gives the impression that the reading is a pale one, the opposite is the case. There is a suggestion of whimsy in Fischer-Dieskau’s performance of The Fly that is absent in Williams’ reading, and Williams launches Ah! Sun-flower with a superb crescendo barely observed by Fischer-Dieskau. The end of the work, too, is very fine indeed from both artists, not quite resigned, not quite hopeless.
William Hedley 

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An outstanding performance of a mature Britten masterpiece, coupled with juvenilia and folk-songs.