On This Island, Op.11 – Let the florid music praise!
Purcell, realised Britten
Music for a while; Sweeter than roses
Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine, Op.40
Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon; Bleuet; Priez pour paix
Winter Words, Op.52
John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Roger Vignoles (piano)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 16 May, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
This well constructed recital, a BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, looked at several aspects of Benjamin Britten’s writing for voice around the time of the Second World War, prominent to which are his realisations of Purcell. John Mark Ainsley proved to have the ideal instrument for these songs, his voice suited to the music through its clear, ringing tone.
‘Music for a while’ and ‘Sweeter than roses’ featured in the first selection of songs, as did the celebratory ‘Let the florid music praise!’ from Britten’s first published song cycle “On This Island”. Very much a song of two halves, this balanced an opening declaration with a second verse of shade and thought, carried through by Roger Vignoles’s beautifully phrased postlude. The emotional centrepiece was the first of Britten’s five Canticles, its text fulfilling a declaration of adoration for Peter Pears. Ainsley was completely at ease with Britten’s melismatic writing, and the contrapuntal exchanges between the left and right hands of Vignoles’s attentive accompaniment were wonderfully clear. The two had the measure of the unusual four-part structure, the relatively ambiguous harmonies towards the end resolving through one of the composer’s characteristic sleights of modulation.
Britten ended the recital, too, in the form of the pictorial “Winter Words” cycle of 1953. Thomas Hardy’s verse came to life in a performance of vivid shading and detail, with extraordinary imagery found in Vignoles’s evocations of the autumn wind (‘At Day-close in November’), the unsteady motion of a train (‘Midnight on the Great Western’) or the creaks of ‘The Little Old Table’. Ainsley was hardly less concentrated, bringing a great deal of emotion and regret to songs that lament a lost age of innocence and grace. There is enjoyment in small pleasures, too, and Ainsley’s subtly humorous asides were nicely chosen and delivered. ‘Before Life and After’, the closing song, brought the misgivings to the surface but ultimately exorcised them in its major-key ending, subtly emphasised by Vignoles.
Four wartime settings from Francis Poulenc offered a satisfying balance to the recital, reminding us of this composer’s ability to achieve deep emotion through relatively straightforward melodic writing. ‘C’, the first of two Aragon settings from 1943, was touching in its simplicity, while the quickstep of ‘Fêtes galantes’ raised the spirits with Ainsley’s expressive tricks, portamento among them. Both tenor and pianist paid careful attention to detail in the 1939 song ‘Bleuet’ before exploring a nostalgic vein in ‘Priez pour paix’ with its slow, stepwise movement. Ainsley and Vignoles signed off a hugely satisfying concert with a wonderful encore; Peter Warlock’s setting of John Fletcher’s ‘Sleep’.