Benjamin Britten: In Memoriam – Blake and Donne

On this Island, Op.11
A Charm of Lullabies, Op.41
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35 [excerpts]
Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74
Who are these children?, Op.84

Lisa Milne (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 3 December, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

In another of the Wigmore Hall’s Benjamin Britten concerts, Philip Langridge was indisposed; thus disappointing not to hear him in “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne”, but Mark Padmore sang six of the nine Britten chose to set. Furthermore, we were given the unadvertised “A Charm of Lullabies”, Britten’s cycle from 1947, and written in the wake of “The Rape of Lucretia” for Nancy Evans who shared that opera’s title-role with Kathleen Ferrier at its first production. The warmth and charm (no pun intended) of this music was winningly conveyed by Catherine Wyn-Rogers – a fine Lucretia herself. Her comforting, almost maternal, tone was ideal for the gentler settings, and a wry, laconic humour was ideal elsewhere. Mark Padmore’s singing of the Donne sonnets was secure, even if the subtleties of the ‘light and shade’ of Britten’s writing were not fully conveyed. If Philip Langridge’s cancellation was last-minute (though there was a printed text of “A Charm of Lullabies” and an explanation for the programme change) then Padmore may be forgiven for not being at his most assured.

Lisa Milne had launched this recital with a most convincing performance of Britten’s first song-cycle – “On this Island”. Her ample soprano lent radiance to the composer’s glittering realisations of sometimes – and typically – intractable lines from W. H. Auden. Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss was the first exponent of this music and, on the evidence of recordings, had a less fulsome tone than Lisa Milne commands. But Milne projected words and musical lines fearsomely and with utter credibility. How startling this music must have seemed in 1937 to audiences used to, shall one say, the ‘pastoral’ character of contemporary – and earlier – British song-writing.

The “Songs and Proverbs of William Blake” was composed in 1965 for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who had, three years earlier, participated in the first performance of Britten’s “War Requiem”, and whose utterly unique vocal timbre was undoubtedly an inspiration. Simon Keenlyside is not Fischer-Dieskau, neither did he pretend to be, but gave a performance which had a conviction all its own. Indeed, with his sharp-etched delivery of the text, it could be argued that he was more successful than the cycle’s dedicatee at conveying the sinister, if not bitter, undertones in this music. These Blake settings are not ‘staples’ of the repertoire, but Keenlyside’s fervent advocacy reminded one that they are severely underrated. I hope he will record them under his new exclusive contract with Sony/BMG.

Britten’s final song-cycle is similarly under-represented in the recital room and on record. Mark Padmore has placed admirers of “Who are these children?” in his debt with a fine recording on Hyperion, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. The Pears/Britten Decca recording has, at last, been made available on CD via the Eloquence series. Mark Padmore was even more convincing in this recital than he was in the 2004 recording. The alternation between the ‘light’ settings in Scottish dialect (the music recalling Britten’s ‘earlier’ style) and more serious matter – including the injury of children during war-time – was properly uncomfortable.

The young Graham Johnson, attending early rehearsals, was asked by the composer whether there weren’t too many repetitions of the word “doun” (down) in Britten’s final song of this cycle – ‘The Auld Aik’ (The old oak). Before the no-doubt disconcerted pianist had a chance to answer, Britten explained – “It really is down, you see; it’s the end of everything”. Apt words to reflect upon on this eve of Britten’s passing. The Graham Johnson of 2006 provided absolutely superlative accompaniments.

This recital, like that of the Canticles earlier in the day, was more than a worthy commemoration of the work of one who must surely be seen more and more as the greatest British-born composer since Henry Purcell.

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