Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op.61
Who are these children?, Op.84
A Young Man’s Exhortation, Op.14
Mark Padmore (tenor) & Roger Vignoles (piano)
Recorded 11-13 February 2004, All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: February 2005
CD No: HYPERION CDA67459
Duration: 78 minutes
This recital boldly covers repertoire largely written for theincomparable partnership of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten; whether by accident or design, it includes one of the first pieces written for them (Tippett’s “Boyhood’s End”) and one of the last, Britten’s late song-cycle, “Who are these children?”, his final work in that form composed for Pears.
Other underlying ‘threads’ which run consistently throughout the well-considered programme include reflecting on youth from an adult perspective, and the inevitable passing of time, this latter most hauntingly conveyed in Britten’s “Um Mitternacht”, a lone setting of Goethe from 1959-60, but published posthumously, which concludes the disc on a disquieting note.
Is says much for Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles that although there are rival recordings – not least from Pears and Britten – their artistry and empathy are such that they need fear no comparison. Indeed, the recital as a whole, whilst largely serious and thoughtful in character, makes for absorbing and satisfying listening.
“Boyhood’s End” is described as a Cantata and, unusually for that form, is through-composed, with quasi-recitative sections alternating with arioso-like passages. Some of Tippett’s writing is by no means easeful for the voice, and the piano is often quite independent from the singer. Padmore and Vignoles are completely convincing, even in passages that can be taxing for others. In the melismatic passages, Padmore’s confidence is such that some of the music’s apparent awkwardness does not register, and these ecstatic moments seem to arise naturally.
Padmore actually sounds more at ease in this piece than does Peter Pears, as recorded. First performed by him and Britten in 1943, Decca preserved Pears’s interpretation in 1952, accompanied by the highly gifted, though tragically short-lived Noel Mewton-Wood. That recording now forms part of a valuable collection on EMI’s British Composers series (5851502). To befair to Pears, the close balancing of the voice against a rather distant piano does neither artist any favours, but Pears somehow does not sound as comfortable as Padmore, wonderfully expressive though some of his colouring of certain words and phrases is.
In any event, Hyperion’s warm and natural sound allows Padmore’s and Vignoles’s interpretation to blossom and, although timings areroughly comparable to Pears’s performance, the new version sounds more relaxed and eloquent.
Gerald Finzi’s 1933 cycle “A Young Man’s Exhortation” – settings of Thomas Hardy – occupies an altogether different landscape to that inhabited by Tippett and Britten. One might say that Finzi belongs distinctly in the English ‘tradition’ – in every sense of that word. But this performance underplays what might be termed the ‘pastoral’ elements, and hints at a more troubled, less carefree atmosphere than is often the case. I find this welcome and refreshing.
Roger Vignoles’s elucidation of Finzi’s accompaniment is especially illuminating. The strange opening of “The Comet at Yell’ham”, for instance, almost foreshadows some of Britten’s later, sparer writing, whilst the nifty “Budmouth Dears” is not all ‘hail and hearty’, and much the better for it.
The ten songs which make up Finzi’s cycle have a sense, in this performance, of increasing weariness, culminating in the resigned and ironically titled “The Dance Continued”. This is an unusually persuasive reading, with tenor and piano as equal partners in maintaining a sense of urgency. This is bracing, not balmy English countryside.
Lyrics, rhymes and riddles by Scots poet William Soutar (1898-1943) were selected by Britten for what proved to be his final song cycle, “Who are these children?”, completed in the summer of 1969. The first complete performance was in May 1971, and a live performance by Pears and Britten from The Maltings at Snape given in September that year is to be found on one of BBC Legends’ “Britten the Performer” discs (BBCB 8014-2). Surprisingly, their studio recording for Decca, made in November 1972, does not appear to have been re-issued on CD, and I welcomed this opportunity to re-visit the LP.
I have always found this to be a most absorbing work, and its neglect unjustified. The juxtaposition of domestic and more weighty, tragic matters, seems to me to be part of the inherent interest of the piece, rather than a cause for carping.
Britten chose four English poems – whose titles speak for themselves – “Nightmare”, “Slaughter”, “Who are these Children?”, and “The Children” – as the focal points of the cycle, whilst riddles and verses in Scottish dialect afford contrast and, in some instances, wry humour.
In this cycle, I find Mark Padmore’s adoption of an imitation Scottish accent to be rather less than completely credible. Pears alludes to it through hint and insinuation and is, to my mind, the more effective. Here, it is Pears who sounds the more relaxed; Padmore’s quickish vibrato contributes to a degree of tension, but, on its own terms, this performance does not seriously disappoint, though Britten’s own playing has, inevitably, its own special resonance. He unleashes a torrent of sound (especially in the studio version) in “Slaughter”, whose first line “Within the violence of the storm” clearly suggests the musical imagery. Vignoles is content with a lighter shower. The hunting horns of “Who are these children?” acquire greater menace in the composer’s hands. However, Padmore and Vignoles capture the essentials of this multifaceted cycle, and the final “The Auld Aik”, with its repeated emphasis on “doun”, is aptly poignant.
Just as neglected are the “Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente”, which contain some fine examples of Britten’s genius at both depicting an overall mood and responding to a specific text. I must part company here with Roger Vignoles whose otherwise perceptive note refers to “more head than heart” in Britten’s setting. To these ears, there is a deft balance between the two – as in so much of Britten. Once again, singer and pianist convey the spirit and letter of this somewhat enigmatic music. “Um Mitternacht”, as previously mentioned, provides a ghostly coda.
By any standards, this is a fine disc. It is all the more recommendable given the comparable scarcity of performances and recordings of this marvellous music.