BRITTEN: Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings, Op. 31; Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings, Op. 60; FINZI: Dies Natalis, Op. 8 – Mark Padmore, tenor/ Stephen Bell, horn/ Britten Sinfonia/ Jacqueline Shave – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD 807552, 78:29 *****:
Seventeenth century English poet Thomas Traherne is responsible for the texts of Gerald Finzi’s remarkable pastoral cantata Dies Natalis, or Day of Birth, which speaks of the birth of a human being, possibly even Christ, though the mystical and esoteric texts do not name him. This five movement work, an “intrada” plus four vocal pieces, was marginally a success from the beginning, even though the composer himself was marginalized in the mid-forties when his style of pastoral music—based itself on a time living in the country which left an impression if not an antidote as he was to move back to London—was left in the dust by the radicalization of the time. But it’s hard not to like this music today, as caressing and luxuriant as the string sound is, while the vocal line grips the text as the foam on top of an ocean wave. Padmore does a tremendous job, though I would be lying if I suggested that this recording eclipses the now Arkivmusic-only re-release of a Virgin Classics recording with Martyn Hill and conducted by the late Richard Hickox, once one of the glories of the Finzi catalog and happily available again. But this one is rich in musicality and emotion as well and is an SACD.
Emotion is something not always associated with the vocal music of Benjamin Britten; the angular nature of his vocal lines and lack of supporting English-like harmony—something he really wasn’t too fond of, and it took a long time for him to get over his fascination with the German serialists—make for an acquired taste for many people. And of course his own recordings, associated as they are with Peter Pears, longtime partner and a voice that garners as much criticism as it does praise today, often colors the pieces themselves in such a manner as to disguise musical virtue because of performance eccentricity. Those who feel that way about Pears should really try Padmore in this music, for the far superior musical solidity and interpretative coloring makes for a new twist indeed when listening. Those of us who love Britten will find much to enjoy as the tenor serenade, a meditation of evening and hence death itself by varied chronological English poets, is so particularly piercing and gut-punching even while meddling in the modes and providing some wondrous text-setting.
Britten thought that audiences might have a tougher time with the 15-years-later Nocturne but this was not to be the case; even more harmonically daring in places yet easier to digest in its fuller harmonic scoring, the piece sets the very greatest of English poets as they contemplate a walk on the wild side in the world of twilight and dreams, something the composer often referred to as he used these experiences to formulate his own compositional ideas. Again Padmore captures the dreaminess of the music and the hazy un-reality of the experience to full effect.
This is quite simply a stunning album in spectacular surround sound that should be required listening for Britten and Finzi fans, as well as converting a whole host more. Usual fantastic HM production values along with full texts provided.
A posthumous release of late career Bill Evans in SACD format adds to the formidable legacy.