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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Complete Folk Songs For Voice and Piano
Mark Milhofer (tenor), Marco Scolastra (piano)
Rec. 22-24 August 2019 (CD1) & 6-8 August 2020 (CD2), Theater Clitunno, Trevi (PG), Italy
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 96009 [67:52 + 57:29]

Britten first arranged folksongs in the 1940’s during his US sojourn, and continued until the last year of his life. By then he was too ill to accompany Pears at the piano, so the final settings were for tenor and harp. There is also a set from the 1950’s for guitar accompaniment, for the recitals that Pears gave with Julian Bream. But most of the arrangements are for voice and piano and became regular features, often as encores, of Britten’s and Pears’ recital programmes. There has only been as far as I know one “complete” (a reckless claim in Britten) recorded survey of all this music, issued on three CDs by Collins Classics in 1995, and still available in its Naxos reissue. That is certainly very comprehensive, as the involvement of the Britten Estate meant that then unpublished items are included, as are some orchestral versions. The vocal duties there are undertaken by three singers, Philip Langridge, Felicity Lott, and Thomas Allen.

But the core of this repertoire, and I think the best of it, is found in the five published sets for voice and piano, and that is what we have here. In fact rather more, since some unpublished or posthumously published items are included too. In fact the very last song in this recording, Dink’s Song, is not even on the Naxos collection. I thought it might be a premiere recording but there is at least one CD of “Old American Songs” that has it, where it is just called ‘traditional’. Graham Johnson, in his invaluable book, Britten, Voice & Piano (2003) calls it “the nearest Britten came to setting a spiritual” (which also explains the hint of a drawl from the southern United States in the voice here). There was also a minor mystery about the first song on this recital, I wonder as I wander. It featured often in recitals by Britten and Pears, who thought it too was a traditional song. But it was composed by the American John Jacob Niles, developed from a fragment he collected, and he was fiercely protective of it, issuing lawsuits and demanding royalties. It was still often mistaken for a folksong (according to Johnson, citing The New Grove Dictionary of American Music). Whatever its status, it makes a marvellous opening to the first CD here.

Listening to all this marvellous music over a couple of days makes it clear that these collections, taken together, are more than mere chips from the workbench of a great composer. They constitute a significant aspect of Britten’s art, as Johnson shows by indicating various links between particular folksongs and Britten’s original cycles and operas. Mark Milhofer made his operatic debut as the Madwoman of Curlew River, and has sung various Britten roles on stage including Quint, Novice, Bob Boles and Lysander. So his approach to these pieces reinforces connections to the major works. There is no sense here of the singer condescending to the music, or treating it as ‘light’. He brings his stage experience into the recital room, deploying all his considerable vocal resource, and eschewing anything precious or mannered that could be considered a ‘folksong style’. For some listeners this might be too much – try, say, the “The Salley Gardens” if you are allergic to a real forte in such pieces. For me this music can take this approach, for it restores the raw emotional directness that kept it alive through the generations, and for which it was prized and collected initially.

In fact the tenor also writes the informative booklet note, and quotes Pears’ opinion that Britten “takes the tune as if he had written it himself and thinks himself back as to how he would turn it into a song (an art-song)”. Hence the sometimes startling accompaniments, which initially led to some resistance from those who thought that something pure and authentic was being sullied. But there are no “pure and authentic” folk songs, and certainly no urtext of any. What we have here are Britten songs with a folk origin, and of great range, treating of war, death, love, heartbreak, tragedy – and not a little comedy in several of the characterisations.

“I wonder as I wander” shows at the outset several of Milfoher’s qualities; diction that easily and naturally distinguishes between the first vowel sounds in “wonder” and “wander”, a range of dynamic and vocal colour from an intimate mezza-voce (but with no hint of crooning) to a virile open-throated ringing top (more Peter Grimes than a wandering folk minstrel). The intonation is unfailing, even when Britten takes the piano accompaniment into bitonal territory as in “The Ash Grove”. There is too a good sense of the direction of a lyrical line, without the over-refined legato that smooths out the rhythm - and thus the folk origins. This attention to rhythm is particularly effective in the emphasis on the ’Scotch snap’ of the majestic lament for the “Bonny Earl o’ Moray” – surely rarely better done than here. The Scots accent too is nicely judged, as is the hint of the demotic estuary English of “The Miller of Dee”.

Many of these songs need a button-holing narrative manner, confiding in a listener and assuming he does not know what is to be related. Thus the different types of tragedy of “Little Sir William” and “The Trees So High” are differently delivered, but both touch us as if we had never heard them before. In comedy too Milhofer is a sound interpreter, and avoids any knowing ‘nudge-nudge’ manner in “The foggy, foggy dew” – perhaps he too has an over-pious uncle like the one who told Peter Pears not to issue a forthcoming recording of this “thoroughly immoral song”. But the whimsy of the very English euphemism is registered nonetheless. (If you don’t know this song, I should point out that it does not concern the English weather.)

Some of these songs have idiosyncrasies in the vocal line and are far from technically straightforward for a tenor, but Milhofer never makes them sound effortful. Indeed in “O can ye sew cushions?” he manages the third line’s tricky leap into the head voice expertly. Similarly in “Sally in our Alley”, in the refrain “She is the darling of my heart”, there is a leap across the passaggio of an eleventh (!) midline, up to the word ‘of’. Like Pears, Milhofer pitches this beautifully and always while keeping the sense of its place in the line.

But there are many such moments to delight those who know these pieces, and not only in the English songs. The French volume is included, and “Il est quelqu’un sure terre” is especially fine, with one Britten’s most harmonically rich accompaniments. Milhofer’s French is clear and idiomatic-sounding, and his treatment of the repeated phrases beginning “Va, mon rouet” (‘turn, my spinning wheel’) becomes as haunting as Schubert’s Gretchen at her spinning wheel. Those repetitions and a hypnotically trudging tempo make this at 5:44 the longest of all these songs, nearly a minute longer than Felicity Lott’s 4:56 on Naxos, but it never outstays its welcome.

Overall, Mark Milhofer on the evidence of these forty-seven songs is in the great succession of English tenors taking up Britten’s music after Peter Pears such as Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Ian Bostridge and Mark Padmore. Those are all rather different artists, but they have in common a communicative intensity when singing their own language, which Milhofer has too. It is to be hoped that Brilliant, or someone, will record some of the song cycles with him.

The contributions of Lorna Windsor’s soprano in the two duets, and of Umberto Aleandri’s cello in “The Stream In The Valley”, are admirably supportive. Marco Scolastra’s piano accompaniments are rather more than supportive, as he is alive to all the many nuances Britten put into them. Whether providing the whistling of the jolly “Plough Boy” or the various other pictorial passages, his playing is always alert and spontaneous sounding. He is sensitive to the way the rocking motif of “O Waly, Waly” grows harmonically as the stanzas progress, and makes the flattened seventh on “new” in the bitter line “And love’s a jewel while it is new”, as well as the discord in the next line on “cold”, tiny stabs to the heart. He has a fine sounding instrument too.

The recording is very good; close enough to suggest the recital room but with enough air around the sound to allow louder moments to expand. There are no texts, but then you could probably transcribe them from Milhofer’s excellent diction, even in the fast patter of “Oliver Cromwell” or “Come you not from Newcastle?”. So the absence of texts and translations is a handicap only in the eight French folksongs. (The inexpensive Naxos reissue of the 1995 Collins Classics 3-disc survey has retained the full notes, texts and translations). But Mark Milhofer brings a new dimension to many of these songs, and at Brilliant’s bargain price this is highly recommendable.

Roy Westbrook

CD 1:
I wonder as I wander
Down by the Salley Gardens
Little Sir William
The Bonny Earl o' Moray
O can ye sew cushions?
The Trees They Grow So High
The Ash Grove
Oliver Cromwell
The Crocodile
The Holly and the Ivy
La Noel Passée
Voici le Printemps
Le Roi s'en va-t'en chasse
La belle est au jardin d'amour
Il est quelqu'un sur terre
Eho! Eho!
Quand j’étais chez mon père
The Plough Boy
There's none to soothe
Sweet Polly Oliver
The Miller of Dee
The foggy, foggy dew
The Stream In The Valley (with Umberto Aleandri, cello)
O Waly, Waly
Come ye not from Newcastle?
Pray goody
The Deaf Woman's Courtship (with Lorna Windsor, soprano)
At the mid hour of night
Rich And Rare
Dear Harp of My Country
The Last Rose of Summer
O the sight entrancing
Avenging and Bright
Sail on
How Sweet the Answer
The Minstrel Boy
Oft in the Stilly Night
Soldier, Won't You Marry Me? (with Lorna Windsor, soprano)
The Brisk Young Widow
Sally in Our Alley
The Lincolnshire Poacher
Early one Morning
Ca’ the yowes
Tom Bowling
Dink's Song

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