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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Winter Words [20:33]
Michelangelo Sonnets [15:54]
Six Hölderlin Fragments [12:33]
Who Are These Children? [11:20]
Songs From The Chinese [9:05]
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Sir Antonio Pappano (piano)
Xuefei Yang (guitar): Songs from the Chinese
rec. 25-27 January 2013, St Mary’s Church, Chilham, Kent (piano songs); 31 January 2013, No. 2 Studio, Abbey Road, London (guitar songs)
EMI CLASSICS 4334302 [70:15]

Ian Bostridge has established form in Britten’s songs and I, among other, praised to the skies his recording of the orchestral cycles with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. This, his offering for the Britten centenary, is worthy to take its place alongside that disc. Bostridge is one of the finest Britten tenors around today. I loved his contribution to Knussen’s recent Rape of Lucretia. What sets him apart as special is not just his exceptional musicianship, but his profoundly musical understanding of the text, which he repeatedly invests with all sorts of nuances and inflections that sharpen both the music and the words. This helps point the listener to things that the mere reader might never notice were there. That is a rare gift, but Bostridge does it so often that he makes it seem easy. In Pappano he has a partner whose ear for detail is every bit as fine. In fact, his instinct for musical drama is, if anything even finer than Bostridge's, honed as it is by his vast experience in the opera house.
Naturally, this flair for lyrical detail is something that Anglophones pick up most easily in the English language songs. Winter Words is a profound journey, each song a potent miniature which evokes an entire world.  Midnight on the Great Western, for example, evokes the story of the lonely boy with a pathos that never approaches sentimentality. The bounce of the train and the boy's nerves are evoked by a brilliantly quirky piano line. Every detail is special, and nothing is allowed to pass as commonplace. Just listen to the blare of the bull in Wagtail and Baby, or the poignancy of the creaking table that speaks of a failed relationship. The gentle wistfulness of The Choirmaster's Burial is offset by a wonderfully evocative picture of the insensitive vicar in the middle. I loved the way Bostridge was perfectly happy to lapse into parlando style to portray the convict's hopeless longing for freedom in At the Railway Station. Before Life and After makes a fabulously poignant end to the cycle, the repeated (and unanswered) cries of "How long?" all sounding distinctly different to one another.
The Michelangelo Sonnets are characterised by restless energy and a sense of ardent longing; nowhere more so than in Sonnet XXXI, which stares questions of existence in the face and is not content with its answers. Sonnet XXX, on the other hand, is a depiction of love - or is it obsession? - that is partly touching and partly creepy, a testament to Britten's great skill in depicting the ambiguous. Sonnet XXXII positively bubbles with sexual longing, and the vibrancy of Pappano's piano line blends brilliantly with the stark plangency of Bostridge's vocal colour. XXIV seems simultaneously to celebrate and bemoan the power of erotic passion. True, Bostridge sounds more like a tourist in these songs than he does in any of the others on the disc but he still has an ability to invest what he sings with honesty and beauty.
The pairing of the voice and piano are perhaps at their very finest in the  Hölderlin Fragments. The upward-leaping piano line of the first of them is every bit as evocative as the poet's words in depicting frustration and energy. Die Heimat, on the other hand, is a profoundly beautiful depiction of the conflicted longing for home, with both its comforts and its disappointments. Likewise, the bounding energy of Die Jugend contrasts powerfully with the heavy languor of Hälfte des Lebens. The gentle, canonic piano line of Linien des Lebens comes close to abstraction in the way it ambles across keys and harmonies, mirroring the "life lines" of which the tenor sings. 
For all the value of what appears elsewhere, though, I found Who Are These Children? the most effective and moving thing on the disc. For this cycle Britten set the words of William Soutar, a pacifist with a social conscience. Richard Wigmore's booklet note describes the songs as "among the most poignant and ... savage anti-war songs ever written.” It's easy to see why they would appeal to Britten, especially the incredibly poignant final song, The Children, which depicts the aftermath of an air-raid. The piano's deceptively gentle yet discordant amblings contrast with the tenor's increasingly plangent protests against the injustice of it all. The title song is a tremendously effective depiction of a contrast as a hunt rides through the ruins of a bombed-damaged village. The bounding lines of the piano provide a foil to the tenor's increasingly anguished - and, again, unanswered - questions about who and why. I loved the way Pappano's piano part takes a turn towards the quietly sinister during the final lines. The plangency of Bostridge's voice is remarkable at the climax of Nightmare, and the sheer nihilism of Slaughter packs a mighty punch.
Things lighten up rather for Songs From The Chinese, the final cycle on the disc. For this Bostridge swaps Pappano's piano for the magical guitar of Xuefei Yang. These songs are broadly more affectionate and coy as can be heard in the delightful Herd Boy. The cycle was composed in part as a loving tribute to Julian Bream's collaboration with Peter Pears. However, it is still capable of great profundity, such as in the beautifully melancholy meditation on ageing that is contained in The Old Lute, or the almost disconcertingly minimalist Depression. Yang proves herself an accompanist every bit as accomplished and sensitive as Pappano. The delicacy of her playing - and her instrument - adds an even finer level of transparency and insight to Bostridge's singing.
All of this is every bit as much in praise of Britten's sensational skill as a setter of poetry. Even if it were not so exceptional, we would owe Bostridge and Pappano (and Yang) a debt of gratitude for reminding us of this in the composer's anniversary year. This is the finest new Britten recording to have come my way for the centenary, and if anything else comes our way this year that is nearly as good as this then we can count ourselves very lucky indeed. Full texts and translations are included in the booklet notes.  

Simon Thompson 

Britten discography & review index