The cover of this CD, another from the ever-burgeoning EM Records, is of London before the Great Fire. Old St. Paul’s stands clear above the church towers and windmills; this was the London of John Donne.
Britten’s Op. 35 is a setting of nine Donne poems and David Owen Norris sets seven. He is a difficult poet to set - even to comprehend sometimes - so you really have to have lived with these poems for some time. Norris, in his brief introductory ‘A Note on John Donne’ and in the ‘Setting John Donne to Music’ essay, says that “I have been fascinated by John Donne ever since I discovered him as a teenager”. It would be interesting to know when Britten first made the same discovery.
In the large-scale cycle Tomorrow Nor Yesterday Norris, in many ways, captures the mood of these sometime famous, well contrasted and often challenging texts and does so brilliantly. There are in fact some Brittenesque touches. The obsessive use of certain chords especially in the third one, ‘Air and Angels’ and the piano writing in the lovely ‘The good-morrow’ are examples. ‘The Flea’, which opens the cycle, is especially witty and effective as is ‘The Bait’ a central point in the work. Norris’s day-job, as it were, is as a superb accompanist - as well as being a most lucid and entertaining broadcaster - and there are occasions when the piano part is more interesting than the vocal one, as in ‘The Sunne Rising’. Indeed the vocal line sometimes lacks genuine lyricism or direction where it is most needed. In the very last song ‘The Anniversary’, I found myself frustrated by the vocal line which hung about a single pitch all too often whilst the piano part went off into wild flights of fancy; indeed the great climax after the line “years and years unto years, till we attain to write threescore” is left to the piano alone to achieve. I wasn’t sure if Norris had really plumbed the depths of this desolate poem yet it did achieve a very successful catharsis at its more optimistic close. It is after all, the longest setting and comes at the end of the cycle.
Norris confidently proclaims that he regards The Holy Sonnets as Britten’s greatest song-cycle. This is a bold assertion and not one to which I personally would concur. My preference lies with the ‘Songs and Proverbs of William Blake’ with their greater contrasts of mood. It’s nevertheless an intense cycle with few hiding places. Perhaps audiences have found it somewhat too austere. Anyway this performance could almost persuade me that Norris is correct in his view. I found Mark Wilde really inhabiting the character of the songs one by one. Having said that, he does have to strain and push a little too much in places for example in ‘Since she whom I lov’d’ but then again this same comment also apples to Peter Pears. Three of the songs are set to a feverish moto perpetuo: ‘Batter my Heart’, ‘ Oh, to vex me’ and ‘Thou hast made me’. It’s a virtuoso exercise just to get the words out. This Wilde always manages clearly although he is sometimes fighting with a savage piano part. The last song ‘Death be not proud’ is set, suitably, as a Purcellian ground bass. Wilde has the measure of it in his own terms but his voice lacks the weight that the setting and the extraordinary poem really demand.
For the last work the rich cello of Joseph Spooner is employed, weaving its quite separate and dynamic role between the piano and voice. Norris’s Think Only This consists of four celebrated poems from World War One by: John McCrae ‘In Flanders Fields’, Siegfried Sassoon ‘Counter Attack’ and ‘Base Details’, and Rupert Brooke, ‘The Soldier’. By sheer coincidence I found myself listening to this piece on 11 November and was naturally very moved. In truth it’s the nature of the poems that always hits home but there is much in Norris’s setting to aid the understanding. Also there is no word repetition so that the flow of the poem is never compromised.
It is admirable, even brave to set these poems, redolent as they are with so many associations. ‘Counter-Attack’ comes out as it should, with a nervous aggression aided by strong word-painting and driving ideas and rhythms. The rather boastful ‘Base Details’ uses the melody of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ as its introduction and then distorts it when it repeats. I’m not sure what to think of this idea. The point is made but is it meant to be witty or ironic, painful or conciliatory? I was most moved by ‘The Soldier’. Norris captures an English pastoral atmosphere which comes as something of a surprise after much of the earlier music. This is an eclectic cycle, quite different from the consistency of language found in Britten. The ultimate feeling is of musical credibility despite the above reservations.
The recording lacks space and can feel a little congested at times. The booklet presentation with photographs, full texts, biographical notes and David Owen Norris’s general essays as well as his comments on his own pieces, is exemplary.
Britten discography & review index: Holy sonnets
Norris - Tomorrow Nor Yesterday
1. The Flea
2. The Sun Rising
3. Air and Angels
4. The Bait
5. The Expiration
6. The Good-Morrow
7. The Anniversary
Norris - Think Only This
8. In Flanders Fields
10. Base Details
11. The Soldier
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Britten - The Holy Sonnets Of John Donne
12. Oh my blacke Soule!
13. Batter my heart
14. O might those sighes and teares
15. Oh, to vex me
16. What if this present
17. Since she whom I lov’d
18. At the round earth’s imagin’d corners
19. Thou hast made me
20. Death be not proud