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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Wild Song - Folksong Arrangements
Mychael DANNA (b. 1958)
Marci Meth (soprano)
Simon Russell Beale (reciter)
Anna Tilbrook (piano)
rec. 2016 at the Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Snape, UK
Poems by WB Yeats
Sung texts included

Over the time I have been contributing these reviews I have without question found it most difficult to assess recordings of Britten’s music. I suspect it’s a personal thing – I’ve been fond of the music through amateur participation on and off for four decades, I enjoyed our ten happiest summer holidays of all, around Orford, Snape and Aldeburgh when my kids were younger. To be frank I admire anyone who recognises that simply performing Britten is rewarding in itself. I’ve been listening to this disc for a few weeks now – in fact it actually inspired our hastily organised late summer holiday based around Rendlesham Forest (without the kids by now). The Wild Song has certainly helped crystallise my thoughts about performing and recording Britten more persuasively than any previous disc.

The cover features an image of the force behind this disc, the soprano Marci Meth, unashamedly hugging a most singular tree; those readers who have walked the unforgettable path alongside the River Alde between Snape Maltings and Iken Church will have passed it and possibly contemplated it. I have to admit I contacted Ms Meth before our trip to determine its precise location and my wife and I spent some time in its company. Without wishing to wax too lyrical about the experience, the absence of any other person at the time we made our pilgrimage afforded us the opportunity to ‘absorb’ the local earth in silence. The moments there alone justified our holiday – they also, I think, encapsulated some of the essence of this lovely disc.

The published edition of Britten’s complete folksongs includes 61 numbers across six numbered volumes (organised geographically), the first five of which involve piano accompaniment and the last guitar (these were arranged with the late Julian Bream in mind). An additional set of eight arrangements emerged in the final year of Britten’s life with harp accompaniment – those were for Osian Ellis; there are another eleven songs apart from these sets. For the purposes of The Wild Song Marci Meth has selected eighteen British songs with piano accompaniment, here provided by the excellent Anna Tilbrook, whose tactful and expert efforts in the past have provided far more than a foil for the talents of James Gilchrist among others. Ms Meth has matched seven of these items with poems by W.B.Yeats which seem to act as profoundly apposite ‘echo chambers’ for the song texts. They are read with dignified precision by Simon Russell Beale. The final element in the project involved the commissioning of an electronic prelude and five interludes from Mychael Danna, the Canadian composer best known for his Oscar-winning score for Ang Lee’s movie The Life of Pi. These little soundscapes are interpolated throughout the sequence, their raw materials drawn from the piano accompaniments of the songs which precede and/or follow them, and blended with field recordings of footpath trudge, reed-music and birdsong - evoking the unforgettable sounds and silences of the Suffolk landscape.

Marci Meth describes herself as ‘American by birth and Parisian by inclination’. Perhaps it takes the objectivity of a visitor to consistently find the right tone for these little gems. Her voice is bright, secure and her projection of the texts is marvellous, uncomplicated by anything like received pronunciation; if there is the tiniest hint of an accent here and there it tends to the rural or the Celtic. What she gives back to each of these songs is their intrinsic soul - their ‘earthiness’. Texts are provided but utterly unnecessary. In swifter items (such as The Brisk Young Widow or Oliver Cromwell) the clarity of her diction is a wonder and never occurs at the expense of naturalness. Lesser known songs quite take one by surprise – How sweet the answer and Sail On, Sail On from the Moore’s Irish Melodies set (Book 4) are deeply affecting. The most famous number from that collection – The Last Rose of Summer concludes the disc in devastating fashion, a heart-breaking reminder that a six-day break in Suffolk (or Kilkenny?) is never enough. To my ears Ms Meth finds the real life in these songs that somehow eludes more celebrated (mostly male) singers. Her voice is a model of unforced purity which seems tailored for Britten’s deeply felt but wholly novel arrangements. She unerringly extracts the spirit from each number; it thus glides out of the Snape Maltings concert hall and back into the landscape beyond.

We are often told that Britten could be over-sensitive, hyper-critical and curmudgeonly – but I really can’t believe he wouldn’t have loved this disc. The whole presentation is a delight; its design has clearly involved abundant care and respect. Living as we do in a world of rapidly encroaching fakery and delusion, it’s the unaffectedness of this disc’s contents which most moves and consumes me. Anna Tilbrook’s accompaniments are tasteful and gently nuanced; Simon Russell Beale’s readings eschew unnecessary gravitas and seem to give Yeats’ aptly chosen words the space they need to embolden the ancient texts of the songs themselves. If Britten spruced up these rough diamonds to end his gigs with Pears, these performers show respect for the elegance (some might argue ‘cleverness’) of his arrangements but seem to touch their truths in ways that pass so many by. Mychael Danna’s little interludes may be synthetic in their production but the frame they provide for the music and words seems paradoxically to be conjured directly from earth and air -in any case they unequivocally succeed in both aesthetic and functional terms. Like the song of the ‘wind among the reeds’ that line the banks of the River Alde, Marci Meth and her collaborators provide a delightful experience devoid of plasticity. I find it one of universal power and depth too; The Wild Song is far more than a souvenir of a particularly magical place. Pandemics and governments can do their worst; somehow the world will carry on turning. A reassuring, indispensable disc.

Richard Hanlon

Track listing: (*Denotes poems by W.B. Yeats read by Simon Russell Beale)
Prelude (Danna) [1:06]
The Trees They Grow So High [3:40]
When You Grow Old [0:48]*
Early One Morning [2:50]
The Brisk Young Widow [2:17]
Interlude 1 (Danna) [0:42]
O Do Not Love Too Long [0:30]*
O Waly Waly [3:49]
Little Sir William [2:39]
How Sweet The Answer [1:47]
Interlude 2 (Danna) [1:13]
Brown Penny [0:44]*
Sweet Polly Oliver [2:04]
There’s None To Soothe [1:33]
Never Give All The Heart [0:39]*
Sail On, Sail On [2:46]
Oliver Cromwell [0:50]
O Can Ye Sew Cushions [2:16]
Interlude 3 (Danna) [1:06]
He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven [0:30]*
The Salley Gardens [2:21]
Ca’ The Yowes [3:38]
Interlude 4 (Danna) [0:59]
A Poet To His Beloved [0:25]*
The Ash Grove [2:41]
Dear Harp Of My Country [2:25]
I Wonder As I Wander [3:29]
At The Mid Hour Of Night [2:16]
Interlude 5 (Danna) [1:30]
He Remembers Forgotten Beauty [1:12]*
The Last Rose Of Summer [4:10]

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