> Choral and Song
Songs, Volume 2
Atherton, Johnston; Clayton, Hulett, N. Spence, Tritschler, Nelson; Martineau, piano. Texts and translations. Onyx Classics 4079 (2)
The second of four projected two-disc sets compiling Benjamin Britten's complete song output is every bit as satisfying as the first, if not more so. Once again, pianist and curator Malcolm Martineau coaxes beguiling performances from members of the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival Britten–Pears Young Artists program. If not all of them possess the levels of nuance achieved by more mature recitalists, they are well matched to their material and carefully drilled in, or naturally disposed to, the style. Allan Clayton's supple, liquid tenor enlivens the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the first song cycle Britten wrote for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears. The texts are unabashedly romantic, and it's likely that Britten was being deliberately and deliciously subversive in disguising his feelings for Pears in a language his British audience would not understand. Clayton gives an outstanding performance; "Sonnetto XXX" was my particular favorite. Mezzo Jennifer Johnston brings maternal warmth to A Charm of Lullabies, which Britten wrote for Nancy Evans, the first Nancy in Albert Herring. Even the steeliness Johnston demonstrates when delivering the menacing imagery of "Charm" seems to stem from a place of love and protection, as if she knew that only extreme images of furies, fire and brimstone would scare her young charge into submitting to sleep.
Tenor Robin Tritschler contributes a mournful rendition of Thomas Hardy's "If it's ever spring again," but there is more strangeness to be mined in the offbeat cautionary tale of "The Children and Sir Nameless." Tritschler is engagingly old-fashioned in the delicate "Take, o take those lips away," a setting from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and he gambols effortlessly through the runs in "Underneath the abject willow." Volume One offered only a taste of tenor Nicky Spence. Happily, his contribution here is more significant, with two memorable performances of song cycles to texts by fellow Scot William Soutar. Spence gives the kind of aural performance that suggests vivid facial expressions and evocative physicality. Employing his native burr to appropriate and communicative advantage, he embraces every unpredictable twist and turn in Three Soutar Settings. Who Are These Children is the last cycle Britten wrote for Pears, and Spence gives a chilling account of the horror and wonder in its antiwar texts without overdoing it. Tenor Benjamin Hulett offers a persuasive rendition of The Red Cockatoo and Other Songs, a posthumously published collection of assorted songs. He croons neatly in the jaunty "When you're feeling," digs into the low notes in the cabaret-influenced "Cradle Song" and soars ardently in "If thou wilt ease thine heart."
Baritone Benedict Nelson provides a welcome color change from the parade of tenors in Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, which Britten wrote for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Alternating texts from the poet's Songs of Experience, Auguries of Innocence and Proverbs of Hell, Britten allows his melodies to wander far afield from tonality in these dark, thorny settings. Nelson captures the grave intensity of "A Poison Tree" and the urgent inquiry of "The Tyger," although the cycle is a bit ponderous and not so accessible as some, despite the relative familiarity of the poems. Soprano Elizabeth Atherton closes the recording with "On this Island." Her timbre is a bit tremulous for these whimsical settings of Auden, but she executes the rangy melismas of "Let the florid music praise" with smooth concatenation of registers and narrows her sound successfully for the wordy patter of "As it is, plenty."
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER
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