BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Songs, Volume 1 – Andrew Tortise/ James Greer/ Ben Johnson/ Caryl Hughes/ Philip Smith/ Nicky Spense/ Katherine Borderick/ Robin Tritschler, vocals/ Malcolm Martineau, piano – Onyx 4071 (2 CDs), 131:37 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Britten’s song offerings are substantial and consistently of high quality. Few composers—Samuel barber comes to mind—have such an innate feeling for the voice, a rare and considered approach to note-spinning, and a preternatural ability to set the rhyme and reason of a phrase so beautifully. The texts chosen are not your run-of-the-mill poetry, as was so often done by luminaries even as Schubert, but greats like John Donne (the Holy Sonnets), Thomas Hardy (Winter Words), Hölderin in German (Sechs Hölderin-Fragmente) and even Pushkin—in Russian (The Poet’s Echo). Such talent for words does not come easily, and we are fortunate that Britten’s music matches in every way the superb nuances of the words, in many cases taking them to a new level. How many cycles rival Winter Words? Very few indeed.
Onyx seems to have embarked upon a complete Britten song series, and I for one am thrilled. It used to be that the singers got the headlines while the lowly accompanist (even greats like Gerald Moore) were relegated to backseat status, but no longer; this is Malcolm Martineau’s show all the way, a man with impeccable credentials and who has partnered virtually everyone worth partnering in the last 50 years or so. He brings along eight outstanding artists who have obviously worked hard in collaboration to render his distinct vision of these songs, and the results simply could not be finer. If the next volume(s) are half as good as this one, we will have a Britten series that will take some doing to unseat. Onyx has captured the artists beautifully with sound that is perfect for lieder. Grab this fantastic set—you will not be sorry!
From “Fish in the unruffled lakes”
Virtue in Deeds not Words
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne
Tit for Tat
The Joy of Grief
The Poet’s Echo
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich