The Voice of Peter Pears
Thomas FORD (1580-1648)
Fair, sweet, cruel [1.57]1
Philip ROSSETER (1567-1623)
What then but love is mourning [2.46]1
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
I saw my lady weep [4.06]1
What if I never speed [1.32]1
Thomas MORLEY (1557-1602)
It was a lover and his lass [2.21]1
Thomas CAMPION (1567-1620)
Shall I come sweet love? [2.58]1
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Im Frühling, D882 [4.58]2
Auf der Bruck, D583 [3.31]2
An die Laute, D905 [1.46]3
Der Taubenpost, D957/14 [3.47]3
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35 [23.07]4
Folksong arrangement: The plough boy [2.00]4
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
I have twelve oxen (1918) [1.43]5
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
In youth is pleasure (1940) [2.24]5
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
Yarmouth Fair (1924) [1.36]5
Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
How love came in (1935) [1.17]5
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Love went a-riding (1914) [1.38]5
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Folksong arrangement: Six Dukes went a-fishin’ [3.04]2
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Folksong arrangements: Long time ago, Simple gifts, I bought me a cat (1950) [7.01]2
Peter Pears (tenor), with Benjamin Britten (piano) except 1with Julian Bream (guitar)
rec. 19474, 19502, 195615 and 31960
REGIS RRC 1393 [74.54]
The booklet note by Hugo Shirley for this release begins by quoting Decca producer Ray Minshull on the voice of Pears: “It would be unjust to say it was naturally beautiful … It was the way in which he used it which was genuinely beautiful, and his artistic insight into every work he studied is a model for those with ambitions to equal his stature.” It was also Pears’ misfortune to have been so cruelly – and accurately – mocked by Dudley Moore in Beyond the Fringe, a result of which was that it has become almost impossible to listen to his voice without the mannerisms which Moore guyed so precisely intruding on one’s enjoyment. One cannot imagine a singer being similarly parodied since, with the possible exception of French and Saunders and their not altogether unaffectionate take on Montserrat Caballé – and that was a long time ago, too. The fact that Beyond the Fringe could include such an item, with the expectation that the audience would appreciate the joke, is in itself a testimony to the importance of Pears as an interpreter in the 1950s and 1960s.
The recordings reissued on this release date from the years between 1947 and 1960, at a time when the mannerisms which unfortunately sometimes marred Pears’s later recordings were not so evident. Indeed the earliest performance here, the 1947 reading of Britten’s The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, reveal a voice quite different from that familiar at a later date: more precise, more forceful (even heroic), and without the intrusive vibrato that later would develop into a distinct wobble. One can hear the voice that could sing La Bohème or Die Meistersinger in the opera house, something inconceivable at a later period; and the recording has plenty of presence, even though the voice is set somewhat far back when compared to Britten’s playing on a rather tubby-sounding piano. The booklet note freely acknowledges the “trouble early recording technology had in capturing the almost orchestral scale of the piano writing”. This performance nevertheless is superior to Pears’ later stereo remake, when the vibrato in his voice had loosened noticeably even if his artistry in the music of Britten remained unsurpassed. The contemporary recording of the folksong arrangement is better balanced, and the piano sounds in better condition too.
The other folksong arrangements here date from 1950 and the performance of Copland’s Long time ago is very beautiful, even if the pointing of the words in I bought me a cat sounds very dated now; these arrangements were brand new at the time they were recorded. Again the balance between piano – superbly and humorously played by Britten – and voice is very good, although in the two Schubert settings of the same date the piano sound is again rather over-resonant and clumping. One does however note again the drama with which Pears invests Auf der Bruck, without any sense of unsteadiness.
Unfortunately by 1956 when he came to record the various lute songs included here with Julian Bream on guitar the unsteadiness had become much more evident. The opening sustained notes in Dowland’s I saw my lady weep are almost a parody of Pears’ style of singing, coming far too close to Dudley Moore for comfort. His pronunciation of some of the vowels has begun to acquire the curdled quality which would become increasingly evident during the 1960s. His response to the words remains as acute as ever, but these performances sound nowadays unacceptably old-fashioned – a ‘period performance’ in the wrong sense. The balance shifts uncomfortably between tracks, with Bream’s guitar more prominent in some places than others. The two later Schubert recordings made in 1960 find Pears and Britten much better balanced, with sound that brings out Britten’s responsive piano playing to better advantage. Indeed one presumes that these two tracks would have been recorded in stereo - the notes are silent on this point.
Finally this CD includes a selection of English songs recorded in 1956, again with Britten at the piano. Again the balance between voice and piano is well judged, with Pears managing, by and large, to remain steady and focused. The performance of Bridge’s Love went a-riding is superb indeed, challenging the slightly earlier recording of the song made by, of all people, Kirsten Flagstad in its heroic tone. Pears never recorded any of the songs featured here again so these readings have a unique historic value. Lennox Berkeley’s setting of Herrick’s How love came in is not one of his greatest songs. It is perhaps significant that nobody seems to have recorded it since. The other songs are more familiar, with the performance of Warlock’s Yarmouth Fair a particularly fine example of the way in which Pears could relish words without sounding over-precious.
These recordings are all available elsewhere in various compilations of Pears’ art, but it is valuable to have them gathered on this very reasonably priced disc. A misprint on the box and in the booklet rather bizarrely tells us that the Dowland setting is called “I say my lady weep,” and twice mis-spells Thomas Campion’s surname as Campian. There are no texts of the entirely English settings, but then Pears’ diction is so good that they are hardly needed. One may object, on occasion, to the over-precise pointing of consonants and the sometimes artificial-sounding vowels, but one is never in any doubt as to the words he is singing – something from which modern singers could still learn.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
it is valuable to have these recordings gathered on this very reasonably priced disc.
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