The first Britten songs I ever heard were the song cycles Winter
Words and the Michelangelo Sonnets. They were a part
of the superb Decca Eclipse series that was so influential in
the early seventies. In fact, I think I still have the old vinyl
recording in my library – I guess I kept it for sentimental reasons
and for the beautiful photograph. Of course the Peter Pears/ Benjamin
Britten recording of these songs have been released on CD and
are no doubt essential discs in every Britten enthusiast’s collection.
Yet it is important that these works are reinterpreted for each
generation, and what was an appropriate style of singing in the
1940s may be less satisfactory sixty years later.
my money, the review in the Daily Telegraph sums up this present
release - "Mark Padmore's singing of the Michelangelo Sonnets
has all the grace of the young Pears without his mannerisms
...” It is one of the strange things about Peter Pears - on
the one hand I treasure his renditions of English song and on
the other I find myself sometimes reacting less than positively
to his style. Yet the bottom line is that the Pears/Britten
recording is the baseline from which, I imagine, all others
will be judged for many years to come.
After some thirty years of music listening, I still regard
the Sonnets and the Winter Words as being amongst
Britten’s masterpieces: both cycles seem to re-define many preconceived
notions about English lieder. The one is typically English in
its explorations and the other turns its focus to the wider
It is not necessary to discuss the Sonnets in any detail,
save, to point out that they were completed in the United States
in 1940 and were the first songs to be composed specifically
for Pears. It is a celebration of their love for each other
and the beginning of their personal and professional partnership.
These songs are inspired by the Italian ‘bel canto’ tradition
and this influence informs both the ‘internal structure and
the musical language’.
I do not know the song-cycle The Poet’s Echo Op. 76,
so this was a good opportunity to try to get to grips with it.
The work was composed whilst Britten and Pears were on holiday
in Russia: they were staying with Mstislav Rostropovich and
Galina Vishnevskaya. At this time Britten had been considering
a song-cycle with Russian texts for Vishnevskaya and he had
purchased a copy of Pushkin’s poems in a parallel Russian/English
translation. The programme notes suggest that the central theme
of the cycle is “the artist’s struggle to elicit some response
from an uncomprehending world.” I enjoyed the piece, but feel
that the musical language is not as approachable as his earlier
Um Mitternacht, a poem
by Goethe, is also new to me. It was composed around 1960, however,
for some reason this work remained unpublished during the composer’s
lifetime. The sentiment of the poem is the passage of time,
and this is appropriate as the composer was close to his fiftieth
birthday. This is dark music that never has a flash of light.
But then again, the theme of the poem is ‘At Midnight’ so that
is to be expected. The English translation does not really endear
this poem to me and I guess it loses some of its seriousness.
Perhaps the loveliest thing on the disc is the Sechs
Hölderlin-Fragments which was composed in the summer of
1958. Britten himself regarded these songs highly and declared
that they were “probably my best vocal works so far”. It could
be argued that these were his attempt at writing German lieder-
yet as Dr John Evans in his excellent sleeve-notes points out,
they are more Alban Berg that Franz Schubert. That, notwithstanding,
this is a stunningly beautiful reflection on life as time passes.
The cycle progresses from a consideration of worldly fame, to
a longing for the lost innocence of childhood and ending up
with a degree of self doubt.
cycle was a gift to Prince Ludwig of Bavaria on his fiftieth
birthday – a thoughtful gift, certainly, with both men dwelling
on the frailty of their reputations.
of the most attractive and downright beautiful pieces on this
CD are the folksong settings of French texts. In fact if I was
to suggest a starting point for people interested in discovering
Benjamin Britten’s vocal works it would be these eight arrangements.
There is a simplicity and a subtlety about these pieces that
make them almost timeless. Britten is well known for his English
Folksong settings, including the ubiquitous Sally Gardens.
Yet in these present songs he finds all that is best in Gallic
charm and infuses this into virtually every note. The Times
critic suggest that "Gritton all but steals the album with the haunting Il est Quelqu'un".
It is a sentiment with which I would wholeheartedly agree. This
is one of most gorgeous pieces of music by Britten in particular
and in European music in general.
What we have here is a wonderful CD. I accept that not all
the pieces presented may be everyone’s cup of tea. Certainly
I needed to do a double-take on The Poet’s Echo. But
taken in the round it is a fine presentation of a selection
of the composer’s works. It covers that which is well-known,
such as the Sonnets and works from the ‘hidden’ repertoire
such as the Um Mitternacht and the folksong settings.
The singing and the playing are superb, the presentation is
second to none and the programme notes are ideal. All in all,
this is a fine production.