Britten: Songs – review


This disc includes three of the major song cycles with piano that Benjamin Britten composed for Peter Pears. The great Holy Sonnets of John Donne is not included, nor A Birthday Hansel, the late Robert Burns cycle for tenor and harp, but there are the four English-language settings of William Soutar from Who Are These Children?, and the much less often-heard Songs from the Chinese, based upon Arthur Waley's translations, which Britten wrote in 1957 for Pears and guitarist Julian Bream, and in which Ian Bostridge is partnered by Xuefei Yang.

Britten's vocal writing has consistently brought out the best in Bostridge, and all of these are very fine performances, which at least match and in some cases better Pears's own recordings with Britten. Bostridge and Antonio Pappano define the sharply different characters of the three great cycles here quite superbly. The youthful impetuosity and Italianate exuberance of the Michelangelo Sonnets are irresistible, and Bostridge is perhaps more in control of the high-lying, high-flying vocal writing than Pears was, catching the Schumannesque urgency of the second song, A Che Più Debb'io, as exactly as he traces the smooth curves of the beautiful third, Veggio Co'bei Vostri Occhi. The Six Hölderlin Fragments make a sharp contrast – terse and concise where the Michelangelo settings are florid and expansive, and Pappano ensures that the piano writing dovetails perfectly with the sparseness of the vocal lines, to which Bostridge sometimes brings an almost expressionist intensity.

Best of all, though is their account together of the Hardy song cycle, Winter Words, which at times seems to anticipate the haunted world of The Turn of the Screw, composed shortly afterwards, but which also, in the piano writing especially, sometimes harks back to the rhapsodic writing of the Michelangelo sonnets. There is perhaps a bit more anguish to be mined out of the final song, Before Life and After, than Bostridge and Pappano find, but they are so alert to every other fleck and twist of each setting that it hardly matters.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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