Recordings > Editor's Choice

BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; Nocturne
FINZI: Dies Natalis 

spacer Padmore; Bell, horn; Britten Sinfonia, Shave. Texts and translations. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807552

Tenor Serenades

Mark Padmore delivers expert performances in a generously filled disc of music by Britten and Finzi.

BrittenCD

Always the neglected stepchild of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Britten’s Nocturne has now been given a fine recording by tenor Mark Padmore and the Britten Sinfonia. Like the Serenade, the Nocturne sets an anthology of British poetry (Keats and Tennyson are common to both) and was originally composed for tenor Peter Pears. But in the Nocturne the music is continuous, and the solo horn line of the Serenade is expanded into a group of seven obbligato instruments for the Nocturne. Several of the poems are used incomplete. This creates an atmosphere of barely connected thoughts in the singer’s dream state, and it allows Britten to cleverly shape the overall musical form as a coalescing progression toward a complete setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 (“When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see”)  as the climax. The sequence of the seven successive solo instruments — with the timpani an unexpected choice , and with the clarinet and flute playing only in duet — is handled with the most loving kind of musical craft. Under the baton of Jacqueline Shave, the instrumental entrances never fail to surprise the listener. The obbligato instruments finally join together for the Shakespeare setting, in which the singer briefly awakes to the real world. Britten himself didn’t think that the rarefied Nocturne would ever really catch on — he called it “the strangest and remotest thing” — but perhaps its time has come. With so many singers attempting to make stagings of recital repertoire nowadays, the Nocturne seems a ripe candidate.

Padmore sings the Nocturne so expertly that he takes the focus off himself and keeps it on the music. He brings an enraptured, intoxicated quality to the solo line , differentiating it from the more straightforward text settings of the Serenade, also included on this disc. Padmore has an ingratiating, natural presence, skirting the potential embarrassments of imitating a mouse in the Middleton setting and of voicing the semi-pitched climax of the Wordsworth setting. He can sound shockingly boyish, as in the coy setting of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Encinctured with a twine of leaves” , but he has plenty of power for the Tennyson “Nocturne” in the Serenade . Only occasionally, as in the first poem of the Nocturne and the last poem of the Serenade, do we wish for a bit more rhythmic freedom. Shave finds great variety in all of the string writing, and she doesn’t shy away from Britten’s grotesqueries.

Finzi’s Dies Natalis (Day of Birth), an ambling, background-y assemblage of relentlessly similar musical themes
, setting way too much text by Thomas Traherne, completes this generously filled disc. Thus there’s no room to add Britten’s Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, which would have brought more music from the accomplished horn soloist Stephen Bell. The Super Audio CD sound is clinical. There is absolutely no presence to the silences, which are especially important in the Nocturne, and dynamic range is minimized. But the text booklet, which allots a full page to each poem and offers photos of the poets, is the lovely sort of thing that might keep people buying actual CDs instead of downloading the music. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6