Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31 (1943) [24:47]
Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings, Op. 60 (1958) [28:35]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Dies Natalis, Op. 8 (1938/39) [24:58]
Mark Padmore (tenor); Stephen Bell (horn)
Britten Sinfonia/Jacqueline Shave
rec. Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London, February 2011. DSD
English texts, French and German translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 807552 [78:29]
This new disc from Mark Padmore intelligently links cycles for high voice by two English composers who were steeped in English literature and who both consistently demonstrated significant discernment in the choice of texts.
Both of the Britten works were associated so closely with the voice of Peter Pears for such a long time that one began to feel that, for some people, no one but Pears could do full justice to them. Happily, we’ve moved on a lot from those days and a new generation of artists has, quite rightly, taken possession. Although the Britten/Pears recordings of both works have been in my collection for years I’ve resolutely left the disc on the shelves: let Padmore be judged on his own merits and not be compared to Pears!
I think I should talk first about Nocturne simply because I’ve always found it a much harder work to grasp – or to love – than the Serenade; which is not to say that I don’t admire it. In comparison with the earlier cycle the music seems grittier and more often angular in line. In addition, I find the sense of the chosen poems harder to penetrate. I hasten to say that is not a criticism of the work itself; the fault lies with me, I’m sure; others probably don’t have the same difficulty. If Mark Padmore doesn’t quite win me round I find his performance very persuasive and highly compelling.
The overarching theme – an exploration of aspects of dreams – lends itself to darkness, though the work certainly has its lighter side. Padmore seems very alive and responsive to the varying moods of the piece. I’m sure a factor in this is his acute sensitivity to words, which is in evidence throughout all three works. In the opening song, ‘On a poet’s lips I slept’, his singing is very expressive. I feel his timbre is just right; essentially, the voice is kept light but one is aware there’s a touch of steel there too. I greatly enjoyed the third song, ‘Encinctured with a twine of leaves’, which is most attractive. Here there’s a very pleasing delicacy from the singer and from his supporting instrumentalists. The spooky ‘Midnight’s bell goes ting, ting, ting’ is put across very well: Padmore’s singing is acute and suitably onomatopoeic. The sixth song is a setting of a poem by Wilfred Owen. Nicholas Daniel’s keening cor anglais obbligato is tremendous while Padmore’s delivery of the vocal line and his responsiveness to the words reminded me how much I’m looking forward to hearing him in the fiftieth anniversary performance of War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral at the end of next month. I mentioned the playing of Nicholas Daniel a moment ago, which reminded me that I haven’t commented on the contributions of the other six obbligato players. In a word, all are excellent.
The Serenade is equally successful, featuring a splendid account of the demanding horn part by Stephen Bell. I love Padmore’s light, tender way with his very first entry in ‘Pastoral’ and, later in the same song, the delicate, light-footed singing at the start of the third stanza. Rightly, he brings a more virile approach to ‘Nocturne’ but, in keeping with his consistent care over words he touches the words in lightly during the second stanza where Britten seems to anticipate if not the actual music then the spirit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Stephen Bell is to the fore in ‘Elegy’. His playing is dolefully intense, with some fine hand-stopped notes. The singer has less to do than the horn player in this song but Padmore matches the intensity of his colleague. There’s role reversal in ‘Dirge’, with the horn playing “second fiddle” and the singer much more prominent. This is a setting of the anonymous medieval text known as the Lyke Wake Dirge. Padmore, superbly supported by the Britten Sinfonia, gives a biting, dramatic performance which he builds incrementally. By the time the horn is added to the mix in the sixth stanza the performance has built up a real head of steam; this is riveting stuff. By contrast, ‘Hymn’ is gossamer light and though the music bristles with technical difficulties these are seemingly tossed off by both soloists in a virtuoso reading. The singer’s final contribution is a mostly gentle, sleep-inducing setting of words by Keats. Padmore delivers the sustained, taxing lines with great control in a spell-binding reading, after which the beautifully distanced horn epilogue is an atmospheric, poetic finis to a compelling performance.
If the vesions by Peter Pears need to be banished from the memory when assessing a new recording of either of those Britten works then so too one should eschew comparisons with Wilfred Brown’s incomparable 1963 recording of Dies Natalis. I have heard some fine performances down the years but never one to match Brown’s unique, conversational identification with the text. Indeed, perhaps on another day Brown himself would have failed to match his achievement in that recording.
This was the first item that I played on receiving this disc, for I adore Finzi’s piece. At Padmore’s very first entry I wondered if perhaps his approach was a little forthright but, just to check, I did make a quick comparison of this one point with the Brown recording and found that Padmore does not suffer in comparison. Thereafter I judged his performance solely on its own not inconsiderable merits. I think the reason I was momentarily disconcerted at the start of ‘Rhapsody’ was because although Padmore’s is a very sensitive interpretation – let no one doubt that – there is sinew in his tone as well. Actually, that’s very important because it means he can convey the several moments of ecstasy in a wonderfully ardent, virile way. Just listen to him at the words “in their splendour and glory” in ‘Rhapsody’ and, a little further in to the same song, at “and almost mad with ecstasy”. At such moments Padmore conveys a real sense of exaltation and the ring in his voice is superb.
The reading of ‘The Rapture’ is tremendous. Once again, Mark Padmore’s response to and identification with the words is compelling. He conveys so well the ardour and rapturous eagerness in Traherne’s words and Finzi’s setting of them. At the start of the fourth stanza, when the poet exclaims “O how Divine am I!” Padmore’s performance really blazes; at this point, once again, I relished the exceptional ring in his voice. Finally, after all this ecstasy, he relaxes into ‘The Salutation’ and gives a warm, lyrical performance that sets the seal on a most satisfying interpretation of Finzi’s vocal masterpiece. I do hope he will follow up this recording by setting down some of Finzi’s songs.
I’m conscious that in describing Dies Natalis I haven’t mentioned once the playing of the Britten Sinfonia. That’s unpardonable for they match their soloist’s sensitivity and finesse throughout and introduce his performance with a poetic and accomplished rendition of ‘Intrada’. Their contribution to all three works on this disc is superb and is all the more remarkable since I presume they are playing without a conductor. I wonder if any of these pieces have been recorded previously without a conductor. If not, this is a notable ‘first’ for all three scores are tricky and demanding. Conventionally, one would expect the presence of an interpretative guiding hand and a baton.
The three acutely sensitive performances on this disc have been captured in sound that is expertly balanced and very clear. I listened to this SACD as a conventional CD and was very impressed by the sound quality. The booklet is beautifully produced. In short, this is a release that exudes quality.
John Quinn
A release that exudes quality.

Britten discography & review index

Finzi discography & review index