Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Young Apollo, op. 16 [7:55] Lachrymae, op. 48a [14:19] Prelude and Fugue, op. 29 [8:49] Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, op. 31 [23:59]
Allan Clayton (tenor), Richard Watkins (horn); Máte Szücs (viola); Lorenzo Soulès (piano)
Aldeburgh Strings/Markus Däunert (violin)
rec. The Snape Maltings, 20–22 October 2012 (Lachrymae, Prelude and Fugue); 24–25 November 2013 (Serenade); 4 April 2015 (Young Apollo) LINN CKD478 [55:02]
This release offers a unique combination of works. Lachrymae and the Prelude and Fugue have appeared together on two independently issued Virgin discs under Iona Brown and Christopher Warren-Green, as well as on a Nimbus CD conducted by William Boughton. Meanwhile Yuli Turovsky on Chandos has combined Lachrymae and Young Apollo. The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, however, almost invariably comes coupled with other vocal works by Britten, most commonly the other Peter Pears-inspired song-cycles Les Illuminations and Nocturne.
Whether this compilation arose as a result of careful planning or serendipity is not entirely clear. As the recording dates show, the various items were recorded on three separate occasions over a two-and-a-half-year period, in association with residential courses and concerts organized under the auspices of Aldeburgh Music’s Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. The young musicians are trained by eminent members of several of Europe’s major orchestras, who function both as tutors and as section leaders: the leader/director here, Markus Däunert, is for example the concertmaster of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and the viola soloist and section leader Máte Szücs is principal viola with the Berlin Philharmonic. According to the booklet’s list of the members of the Aldeburgh Strings, they normally number 26 players, though only nine actually appear in all of the four works featured on the disc. That said, one does not notice any real discrepancies in performance style or quality, and still fewer in the recorded sound, which – with the exception of what comes across as rather close miking of the horn soloist in the Serenade – is outstandingly good.
The programme begins with the least known work, Britten’s somewhat bizarre ‘fanfare’ for solo piano and strings, Young Apollo, which was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1939 and then withdrawn by Britten after just two performances. Mervyn Cooke’s excellent booklet note tells us that this decision was inspired less by musical factors than by personal ones – namely those arising out of the composer’s spectacularly ill-timed infatuation with the German national Wulff Scherchen (son of the conductor Hermann). This homo-erotic background perhaps helps explain the subject-matter of the piece, which depicts how Apollo becomes the new god of beauty and ‘throws off his mortal form in a terrific convulsion’, before standing before us as ‘the new, dazzling, Sun god, quivering with radiant vitality’. Be that as it may, the Aldeburgh Strings and the young French pianist Lorenzo Soulès perform the work’s various ‘convulsions’ and glissandi with considerable virtuosity and vividness.
For this listener at least, the composer’s level of inspiration is much higher in Lachrymae, written in 1950 for viola and piano, but performed here — as often nowadays — in a highly successful adaptation for viola and string orchestra made by Britten in the last year of his life. Britten, always a great exponent of variation form, here bases his piece on John Dowland’s song ‘If my complaints could passions move’, which, as was sometimes Britten’s way, is given in its original form only at the work’s conclusion. Without evincing any very marked level of interpretative originality, Szücs and the orchestra certainly have the measure of Lachrymae protean moods, and perform it searchingly and sensitively. Both here and elsewhere on the disc, one is struck by the beauty and security not least of their quiet playing – a virtue which comes to the fore also in the gorgeously lyrical Prelude that follows. The accompanying Fugue, meanwhile, is a contrapuntal tour de force written originally for the Boyd Neel String Orchestra, and tossed off here with notable verve and aplomb.
In Lachrymae and the Prelude and Fugue the Aldeburgh Strings already face stiff competition from numerous fine recordings; but this is particularly the case with the disc’s longest work, the 1943 Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Here the rising star Allan Clayton comes up against a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of British tenor-dom, stretching from Peter Pears via the likes of Robert Tear and Philip Langridge to such more contemporary exponents as John Mark Ainsley or Ian Bostridge. Clayton has a lyrical tenor of great beauty and a considerable range of tone colour, though I was slightly surprised to be disturbed occasionally by his vibrato when using head voice and by his aspirated runs in Ben Jonson’s ‘Hymn’ — not that he is exactly alone in that. Clayton’s diction is excellent, though at one point he waxes bizarrely Scottish when telling us of the fire that ‘will burn thee to the bare bane’ in the anonymous ‘Dirge’. As such he relishes such opportunities as he gets for story-telling (as in the last two stanzas of Charles Cotton’s ‘Pastoral’), and he conveys a potent sense of mystery in the second verse of Tennyson’s ‘Nocturne’ and the entirety of Blake’s ‘Elegy’. This latter song is probably the highlight of Clayton’s cycle, along with his moving and intelligent rendering of the concluding Keats Sonnet. Overall I could perhaps best explain his approach by placing it somewhere between the relatively direct, golden-voiced eloquence of John Mark Ainsley (with David Pyatt and Nicholas Cleobury on EMI) and the more astringent, imaginative and at times interventionist manner of Philip Langridge (with Frank Lloyd and Steuart Bedford on Naxos, formerly Collins). With regard to Clayton’s associates, Richard Watkins’ expert horn playing seems to me to be denuded of a certain sensitivity — and quietness — by the recording balance. Markus Däunert’s direction is attentive and detailed, but arguably lacks the overall sense of flow and momentum that is achieved by conductors such as Cleobury on EMI; his recording with Ainsley remains, I fear, my personal favourite.
Taken as a whole, this is an estimable disc, but one which will appeal unequivocally only to those who are particularly attracted to its unusual combination of works or particular admirers of one or more of the artists involved. With regard to its individual works, you can do at least as well for less outlay elsewhere. A full-price disc lasting for 55 minutes no longer represents optimum value for money, even though its purchasers can also download for free a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Is it hopelessly anachronistic to suggest that it might with benefit have been added to the CD? This would admittedly involve a certain loss of coherence, but there is plenty of spare disc space, and Britten and Vaughan Williams are a far from illogical combination; indeed the Tallis Fantasia would make a thoroughly apt coupling for Lachrymae in particular.