Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op.31
Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings, Op.60
Dies Natalis, Op.8
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Stephen Bell (horn)
Jacqueline Shave (director)
Recorded February 2011 at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: May 2012
CD No: HARMONIA MUNDI
Duration: 78 minutes
Gerald Finzi’s meditative pre-war song-cycle really ought to come first on the disc, not last. For all its felicities, the smooth, bevelled contours of Dies Natalis can appear disconcertingly bland after the acidulated harmonies of Britten’s Nocturne which precedes it. It’s worth going to the trouble of re-programming the playing order, or at the very least taking a break before switching from one composer to the other.
This is an aesthetic matter, though, and not a comment on the relative merits of the music. Indeed, Finzi’s cycle (1939) counts among his most absorbing accomplishments. The ‘Intrada’, expressively played, gives way to an exemplary reading of ‘Rhapsody’ in which Finzi finds rhythm and shape in the formless words of Thomas Traherne, the seventeenth-century mystic poet from whom he drew so much inspiration. With its recitative quality, this prose setting inhabits an aural landscape that Finzi’s American contemporary, Samuel Barber, would visit a decade later with Knoxville, Summer of 1915.
Mark Padmore and the recording team should have retaken the opening stanza of ‘The Rapture’, as a lapse of intonation at “O sacred light! / How fair and bright!”, small though it is, will jar on repeated listening. The penultimate song, ‘Wonder’, meanders somewhat without much inspiration to kick it into life, and Padmore finds little here to work with. Its long lines carry over into the closing setting, ‘The Salutation’, but the structure is more keenly defined and Padmore, though less than his usual assured self in places, closes the cycle with a gentle, poetic flourish.
A few slack tempos in both Dies Natalis and Britten’s Serenade do not benefit either work and are probably explained by the absence of a conductor. Jacqueline Shave tends to trundle through music that needs to be more-forward-moving than she achieves from the leader’s desk. The Serenade opens the disc with an astringent ‘Prologue’ from Britten Sinfonia’s admirable principal horn, Stephen Bell, who throughout effaces (though does not eclipse) his many illustrious predecessors in this work – not least David Pyatt in the Sinfonia’s earlier recording of the Britten works (with John Mark Ainsley and conducted by Nicholas Cleobury on EMI, which remains my first choice). Bell is chilling in ‘Elegy’ (setting William Blake’s poem The Sick Rose), even though Padmore’s vocal twiddle on “thy bed of crimson joy” is a puzzling accretion; but the horn’s wail of mourning in its final phrase, which so chillingly sets up the opening figure of the ensuing ‘Dirge’ (“This ae night…”) is undone by Shave’s (or someone’s) decision to insert a twelve-second pause between the two numbers.
More puzzlement awaits with the retention of an uncharacteristic mistake by the tenor during the seventh stanza of the ‘Dirge’, “If ever thou gav’st meat or drink”, where the orchestral counter-melody throws him off-key for several uncorrected bars. This parade of flaws, which places the account out of court in a crowded discography, is particularly disappointing given Padmore’s superb reading of ‘Sonnet’ (setting Keats) that closes the cycle. Such a great artist must surely re-record this masterpiece before long, under more favourable conditions and with a strong conductor at his side.
The performance of Nocturne is the highpoint: a wide-eyed, variegated account from singer, obbligato instrumentalists and orchestra alike. A few inconsistencies of volume are noticeable as we jump from one take to the next in this continuous cycle; however, Padmore’s virtuosic rendering of the setting from Wordsworth’s The Prelude (“But that night when on my bed I lay”) and Wilfred Owen’s The Kind Ghosts (“She sleeps on soft, last breaths…”) in which he is masterfully accompanied on cor anglais by Nicholas Daniel are, as they say in other circles, alone worth the price of admission.