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Michelangelo in Song
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22, for tenor and piano (1940) (transcr. for bass and piano by David Owen Norris) [16:26]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo, for bass and piano (1897) [9:44]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op. 145, for bass and piano (1974) [36:41]
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
David Owen Norris (piano)
rec. 2012, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
Texts and translations provided
CHANDOS CHAN10785 [62:52]

Sir John Tomlinson is a singer of rare distinction and reward, so the prospect of hearing him in these Michelangelo settings – the Britten transcribed for bass by his accompanist David Owen Norris - is mouth-watering indeed. I suspect the benchmark for the Britten – in its original form - will be the Pears/Britten recording on Decca. The work’s dedicatee sings with all the intelligence and distinctive style/timbre one associates with him; however, the recording is showing its age. As for the Wolf one need look no further than Fischer-Dieskau and Barenboim on DG. That said, I’m still waiting for a truly satisfying account of Shostakovich’s Op. 145. If one gravitates towards the later version for bass and orchestra – albeit sung in Italian – Gerald Finley’s a good choice (review).
Now the preamble’s out of the way we need to deal with the state of Sir John’s once glorious voice. Frankly I was dismayed by the signs of wear and tear I heard in his recent Bluebeard (review). He still sings with enormous passion and an unerring sense of drama, but that wide beat and sometimes hollow tone are just too much to bear. That’s certainly an issue in the Britten, although it’s not the only one; on the whole he seems far too generalised here, too approximate, and one returns to the more characterful Pears with relief. The transcription poses no obvious problems, and I’m sure there are basses out there who could do the work full justice.
Sir John’s Wolf settings are ameliorated – to some extent at least - by heartfelt singing, but even here his voice is too easily stretched and torn. There are always instances where uncommon levels of insight overrule vocal shortcomings; alas, this is not one of them. Still, I did warm to his darkly reflective rendition of Alles endet, was entstehet. The sometimes splashy piano sound is a surprise, given the usually attractive Potton Hall acoustic. Voice and piano are rather closely recorded, too.
Had it been recorded ten years ago Sir John’s Shostakovich would have been a version to treasure. His accompanist really has the measure of this austere score, and he brings out all those distinctive sonorities and quirky phrases. Sir John makes amends with a nicely calibrated account of Love, which is far steadier than one might expect. He’s also terribly moving in Separation, so I’m almost inclined to forgive him his earlier transgressions. Ditto Wrath, which he loads with just the right blend of declamation and vehemence. Remarkably, it gets better; the closing triptych – Night, Death and immortality – find singer and pianist locked in profound communion. This is Shostakovich at his most spare and exposed, and both artists respond to his gaunt writing with telling intensity and insight.
Oh, if only the rest of this disc were so compelling. It’s a measure of Sir John’s great skill that he’s able to transcend his vocal strictures in the Shostakovich and remind us of his former presence and power. I’m not convinced the Britten would ever have worked for him; he just doesn’t sound comfortable with the piece. Good liner-notes and texts/translations complete an otherwise excellent package.
Glimpses of greatness in the Shostakovich; the Britten and Wolf settings disappoint.
Dan Morgan

Britten discography & review index: Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo