Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
WARNER CLASSICS 0151642 [6 CDs: 411:03]
This collection formed a chunk of the 37 disc EMI Benjamin Britten Collector’s Edition, the background to which is expertly outlined by Rob Barnett in his review of the set. Similar boxes are available with the orchestral, chamber and instrumental, choral and opera for children sets. The basic layout is the same for these separate EMI Britten Centenary box set releases, but with the demise of that august label we now have the Warner Classics logo instead, a sad move which may come back to bite Warner where it hurts most.
Basically, every fan of Britten and anyone interested in setting words to music should covet this set. There are no duds as far as performance goes, and many of these recordings are genuine classics which have yet to be equalled and are unlikely to be bettered. Heather Harper is majestic, her French entirely convincing in Les Illuminations, the Northern Sinfonia able and energetic accompanists. The Serenade Op. 31 is a real highlight, Barry Tuckwell’s horn uttering those ‘natural’ tunings with the kinds of call which revive everyone’s prehistoric instincts. Neil Mackie’s tenor has both lyrical qualities and depth, though the words are not always easy to follow. No texts are printed in the booklet alas, but this is a good performance of a truly great work. The Nocturne Op. 60 is a nice coupling for the Serenade, bringing us into an intriguing world of mystery and dark chills. Robert Tear’s dramatic tones suit the contrasting mood of each song well, easing into inflections ghostly, playful and dramatic.
CD 2 offers more orchestral songs, this time topped by female voices. Jill Gomez is a little less attractive vocally than Heather Harper, but she brings a distinctive quality to the Quatre Chansons françaises which takes us straight into those heady Gallic worlds of nature and tender emotions. Superbly articulated by Elisabeth Söderström, the more direct expression of Our Hunting Fathers serves up delicious discomfort; the four Folksong arrangements something of a light relief by comparison. Felicity Palmer’s mezzo-soprano tones are perhaps a little too far forward in the recorded balance for the remaining works, but superb Britten can be heard in Phaedra. The remaining Five French folksong arrangements are delectable.
I used to have a mild allergy to the voice of Peter Pears, but wider experience has brought me closer to his qualities, and he is at his peak in the nicely restored 1942 mono recording of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. Pears’ Italian is rather pinstriped, but this and the intense Holy Sonnets of John Donne remain an absolute reference point for all other versions. Robert Tear returns in his 1973 recordings of On This Island and Winter Words, which still sound superb. Once again I find my brain giving up the attempt to make sense of the words after just a few seconds, but these are great songs and worlds of expression conveyed as much by the music as by a literal comprehension of the poetic language.
The more extended narrative style sometimes found in The Five Canticles does demand linguistic clarity, and Ian Bostridge is the man to provide it. The duet Abraham and Isaac with countertenor David Daniels has some magical moments, and the trio, Journey of the Magi adding baritone Christopher Maltman is another remarkable piece, the sparingly accompanied voices beautifully matched. No texts needed to follow the Folksong arrangements in this case, with Julius Drake’s piano accompaniments responsive and vibrant. CD 5’s variety of songs makes for a special collection in its own right, Neil Mackie’s lighter tones perfectly matched to the songs of Hardy and Auden. Jonathan Lemalu is richly entertaining in the little cycle Tit for Tat, and the pairing of Felicity Lott and Ann Murray in the Two Ballads works well. Sarah Brightman’s more silvery tones are well suited to the simplicity of the final Folk songs on this disc, though as with Robert Tear in the preceding collection we’re left wondering about which words we’re actually hearing.
CD 6 covers Britten’s work with the music of Henry Purcell, the spirit of that great musical forebear just peeking through Pears and Britten’s rendition of The Queen’s Epicideum. These re-workings are ‘of a kind’ and diametrically opposed to the sort of early music renditions we are more used to these days, but there is no denying the beauty of expression to be found in the Orpheus Britannicus, Felicity Lott and Anne Murray once again matched perfectly. Neil Mackie concludes the set with the not to be missed gorgeous orchestrations of the Suite of Songs, the last two tracks a pleasant surprise, rendering Schubert’s witty Die Forelle and the breathy excitement of Schumann’s Frühlingsnacht colourfully and with wondrously dubious taste.
No doubt an inclusion of the texts would have resulted in a booklet too chunky and expensive for this compilation, but in the end it is the only complaint I have about this indispensable collection of Britten’s vocal works.
Britten discography & review index
CD 1 [75:48]
Les Illuminations Op. 18 [21:55]
Heather Harper (soprano), Northern Sinfonia Orchestra/Sir Neville
Marriner. rec. 1970
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings Op. 31 [23:22]
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal (Tennyson) [2:53]
Neil Mackie (tenor), Barry Tuckwell (horn). Scottish C.O./John Tunnell,
Steuart Bedford. rec. 1988
Nocturne Op. 60 [27:28]
Robert Tear (tenor). English C.O./Jeffrey Tate. rec. 1987
CD 2 [74:20]
Quatre Chansons françaises [12:43]
Jill Gomez (soprano). City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle. rec.
Our Hunting Fathers Op. 8 [26:24]
Folksong Arrangements [7:24]
Elisabeth Soderstrom (soprano). Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera/Richard Armstrong. rec. 1982
Phaedra Op. 93 [16:07]
Felicity Palmer (mezzo), Jane Salmon (cello). Melvyn Tan (harpsichord)
Endymion Ensemble/John Whitfield
Five French Folksong Arrangements [11:42]
Felicity Palmer (mezzo), Endymion Ensemble/John Whitfield.
CD 3 [73:40]
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo Op. 22 [16:19]
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano). rec. 1942
Holy Sonnets of John Donne Op. 35 [23:56]
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano). rec. 1947
On This Island Op. 11 [12:35]
Winter Words Op. 52 [20:50]
Robert Tear (tenor), Sir Philip Ledger (piano). rec. 1973
CD 4 [75:00]
The Five Canticles [56:40]
Folksong Arrangements [18:13]
Ian Bostridge (tenor), David Daniels (counter-tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone). Timothy Brown (horn), Aline Brewer (harp), Julius Drake (piano)
CD 5 [70:54]
Two Songs by Thomas Hardy [5:57]
Beware! Three Early Songs [3:18]
Not even summer yet (Burns) [2:05]
Two Songs by W. H. Auden [5:18]
The Oxen [3:10]
Three Rhymes by William Soutar [2:42]
Neil Mackie (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano). rec. 1986
Tit for Tat (5 settings of poems by Walter de la Mare) [6:42]
Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano). rec. 2005
Two Ballads for Two Voices and Piano [5:52]
Felicity Lott (soprano), Ann Murray (mezzo), Graham Johnson (piano). rec. 1991
Folksong Arrangements [18:12]
Robert Tear (tenor), Sir Philip Ledger (piano). rec. 1974
Folk Songs [17:39]
Sarah Brightman (soprano), Geoffrey Parsons (piano). rec. 1986
CD 6 [41:21]
Realisations of Henry Purcell - Odes and Elegies
The Queen’s Epicedium [7:49]
Peter Pears (tenor). Benjamin Britten (piano). rec. 1947
Orpheus Britannicus [12:04 and 5:20]
Felicity Lott (soprano), Ann Murray (mezzo), Graham Johnson (piano). rec. 1991.
Neil Mackie (tenor). Roger Vignoles (piano). rec. 1986
Suite of Songs for High Voice and Orchestra [12:44]
Neil Mackie (tenor). Scottish C.O./John Tunnell, Steuart Bedford. rec. 1988
Orchestrations of Schubert & Schumann [3:13]
Neil Mackie (tenor). Scottish C.O./John Tunnell, Steuart Bedford. rec. 1988
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