Before Life & After = BRITTEN: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op. 35; Winter Words, Op. 52; 3 Songs of Henry Purcell; 5 Folksongs – Mark Padmore, tenor/ Roger Vignoles, piano – Harmonia mundi 907443, 72:13 *****:
This is a sterling collection that has at its core the two greatest song cycles by Benjamin Britten, and two of the greatest that the twentieth century produced. Winter Words, on lyrics by Thomas Hardy, contains such biting phrases as have possibly ever been set to music. Hardy’s lyrics almost despise music in that they are so blatantly descriptive themselves that music emanates from their very syllables, and so it remains for a composer to only support their inherent musicality. Britten’s subtle creation of sound effects in the piano almost place him in the role of a film composer; just listen to the train whistle in “The Journeying Boy” or the offstage harmonium in “The Choirmaster’s Burial” to hear a master fashioning his greatest song cycle.
But if Winter Words is his greatest then surely The Holy Sonnets of John Donne is his most affecting and effective. It was a tour of a German concentration camp in 1945 that set his mind to these songs, seven of which were completed in the space of one week, and two more a week later. These texts challenged Britten like few others, and his use of musical devices becomes far more subtle here, almost subliminal.
The remaining songs are his realizations of Purcell’s work, many of which completely confound modern listeners are they seem so different that Purcell’s intentions, not unlike in a strange manner the Berio recreations of Schubert. But Britten adored Purcell, and his take is a very personal one indeed, as are the folk song settings. My favorite of these latter has always been the early recording of Sarah Brightman on EMI, whose iridescent and unaffected readings are simply perfect for this music, but Padmore does an excellent job himself. In fact I am going to call this record the preferred readings of both the major cycles, though I cannot easily dismiss the Naxos re-release of the old Collins Classics recording of these two plus the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo with Steuart Bedford and Philip Langridge—but if forced, I would choose this one.
On top of it all we have superb notes and even better playing by that Gerald Moore accompanist incarnate—but with better sound—Roger Vignoles, truly without peer these days. Absolutely recommended with much enthusiasm!
— Steven Ritter