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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Heart of the Matter (includes Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain) (1956, rev. Pears, 1983) [25:05]
A Birthday Hansel (1975) [16:20]
Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus (1974) [7:55]
Folk songs for tenor and harp: Lord! I married me a wife [1:18]; She’s like the swallow [2:29]; Lemady [1:32]; Bonny at morn [3:07]; Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwin [2:54]; Dafydd y Garreg Wen [3:24]; The False Knight upon the road [3:20]; Bird Scarer’s Song [0:51]
Folk songs for tenor and piano: Greensleeves [2:18]; The Holly and the Ivy [2:20]
Nicholas Phan (tenor); Myra Huang (piano); Jennifer Montone (horn); Sivan Magen (harp); Alan Cumming (narrator)
rec. 6, 14 January 2012, Performing Arts Centre, Purchase College, Purchase, U.S.A. (music) and 29 June 2012, CaVa Sound Studios, Glasgow, Scotland (readings)
AVIE AV2258 [64:38]

 
Nicholas Phan, in his booklet note, reminds us that Britten composed many of his works – including those in this collection – for performers who were also his friends. Friendship, though, in Britten’s case, was a pretty unstable and volatile phenomenon. The musicians on this disc are also all friends, providing the recital with a neat, if slightly laboured, theme. They are all highly accomplished performers, and yield little or nothing to previous interpreters of these works.
 
Still Falls the Rain is the third of the five short vocal works Britten called “Canticles”. Composed in memory of the pianist Noel Mewton-Wood, it is a setting of Edith Sitwell’s poem about the 1940 London air raids. It was written for Peter Pears, and the horn part for Dennis Brain, who had previously performed the Serenade, surely one of the most beautiful presents any instrumentalist could wish for. The canticle is a much more austere work, but it has its advocates, and several recorded performances are available. It is placed here in the middle of The Heart of the Matter, a longer work that came about following Britten’s invitation to Sitwell to perform at the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival. The canticle was enclosed within new musical settings and lengthy recited passages. An evocative fanfare theme is heard at the outset and throughout. The work was never again performed during Britten’s lifetime, and this recording is of the same, abridged version by Peter Pears that was released in 1996 on the Collins label, sung by Philip Langridge. I don’t warm to the work, but this is purely a personal reaction, largely the result of my aversion to the words. Sitwell’s verses strike me as bookish and stuffed with pretentiously obscure external references, certainly very poor fodder for musical setting. They are the kind of thing that got poetry a bad name when I was at school, and a bad name is a difficult thing to shake off. They are very well read here by Alan Cumming, his tone intimate rather than declamatory. You might prefer Judi Dench’s immediately recognisable voice on Collins, but there’s no reason to prefer one over the other. What a pity, though, when a narrator is involved, that it always seems so difficult to find a match between the acoustic of the speaker and that of the musical performance.
 
A Birthday Hansel was composed in honour of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on the occasion of her seventy-fifth birthday. Robert Burns was an apt choice of poet, given the lady’s love of Scotland. One wonders, all the same, what she made of the work. It is lighter in tone than most of the composer’s later works, though gloom does penetrate from time to time. Peter Pears’ voice was by this time beginning to show its age, but the music suits it perfectly, and it is difficult for those who, like me, first leant this work from his Decca recording with Osian Ellis, to banish the older tenor’s voice from the mind. Nicholas Phan does not have Pears’ rhythmic precision, nor his cutting, clear diction when he sings about Willie Gray’s leather wallet. Pears’ legato is supreme in “Afton Water”, and his lifetime’s operatic experience equips him better to bring out the little tragedy of the “hoggie” killed by the “maist”. Only in the final “Leezie Lindsay” does Pears sound a little arch, and I immediately preferred Phan in this song. Then gradually, after several hearings, the American tenor made me forget Pears, or at least lay aside memories of him, for this is, in truth, a most accomplished performance, full of insight and understanding, and with a new and valid way of expressing the feeling behind the rather spare notes the composer left us. These comments can easily be applied to the collection as a whole. A Birthday Hansel is made up of seven songs performed without a break, the harp providing linking passages, and it’s a pity the songs are not separately banded. It is also a pity that the pauses between the works on this disc are all too short.
 
Many commentators find The Death of St Narcissus, the last of the five canticles, to be a fitting close to the series, as successful and as moving as the others. For this listener, the aridity that haunts much of the music composed towards the end of Britten’s life is taken to extremes here, and Eliot’s insufferable poem – oh dear! I’m not a poetic philistine really! – doesn’t help. There can be no denying the innovative and dramatic harp writing, and that the music seems perfectly at one with the words. Phan is a totally convincing guide to this rather intractable work. Ian Bostridge (Virgin, 2001) is also very fine, as is Canadian tenor Lawrence Wiliford, with harpist Jennifer Swartz on an ATMA disc from 2009, but I prefer the very slight suggestion of human warmth that accompanies the voice of Philip Langridge on the Collins disc previously mentioned. It is not, all the same, a work to which I return with much pleasure, and it is a relief when the first of the folk song arrangements begins. Many of these are among the lesser known of Britten’s arrangements, and they are all extremely well done.
 
William Hedley
 

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