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Hyperion Records

CDA67778 - Britten: Songs & Proverbs of William Blake
The Tyger (plate 42 from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy AA, P.125-1950.pt42) (c1815/26) by William Blake (1757-1827)
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67778

Recording details: December 2008
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: June 2010
DISCID: 02116B21
Total duration: 73 minutes 27 seconds

GRAMOPHONE AWARD WINNER

'Finley as ever acquits himself as a fine singer, a conscientious artist and a thoroughly reliable musician … Julius Drake is the superb pianist' (Gramophone)

'Fischer-Dieskau's recording from 1965 carries massive authority, but this new recording tops it … everythng [Finley] sings has a feeling of emotional truth, without any artfulness. That's a great asset in these songs … Finley makes Blake's aphorisms ring out with the force of an Old Testament prophet' (The Daily Telegraph)

'If you want to know, or simply need reminding, why Gerald Finley is up there in the Premier League of baritone recitalists then strike out for the final five songs on this magnificent new recording … [Songs and Proverbs of William Blake] originally written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Finley proves himself the equal of his noble predecessor, both in expressivity and emotional weight. How good it is to have this difficult music available in such a fine modern performance … it is a mark of the quality of these two fine artists that everything on this new release should sound newly minted' (International Record Review)

'Gerald Finley sings them all with such an unwaveringly beautiful tone and attention to every syllable, and pianist Julian Drake is so wonderfully attuned to the baritone's inflections … Finley comes into his own in the final Every Night and Every Morn, and Drake's handling of the powerfully wrought accompaniments is superb. Those who have followed them through their series of 20th-century songs for Hyperion (Barber, Ives, Ravel previously) won't be disappointed with this one either' (The Guardian)

'The Canadian baritone has already impressed with his outstanding diction in three albums of North American song for Hyperion. Now he turns to the repertoire that Britten wrote for two of his favourite baritones: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and Tit for Tat (John Shirley-Quirk) … Tit for Tat displays the young composer's prodigious melodic gift and his savour of words. Finley's noble baritone is a richer-coloured instrument than Shirley-Quirk's … in the Blake settings, Finley naturally sounds more at home with the English texts than Fischer-Dieskau ever did … Finley's watchwords are directness and clarity, both of which come across to splendid effect in the folk-song arrangements … Drake is his admirable partner in this outstanding enterprise' (The Sunday Times)

'This marvellous CD showcases the songs Britten wrote for the baritones Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, John Shirley-Quirk and Benjamin Luxon—music that Finley, at the peak of his very considerable powers, makes his own with the pianist Julius Drake … Finley lends it [Songs and Proverbs of William Blake] the very beauty and intelligence and ecstatic vocalism it needs, without the mannerisms of Fischer-Dieskau' (Financial Times)

Songs & Proverbs of William Blake
Morning  [1'06] English
Night  [1'44] English

The unbeatable, multi-award-winning partnership of Gerald Finley and Julius Drake turn to the composer Benjamin Britten for their latest Hyperion release.

Although Britten is particularly celebrated for the substantial body of music he composed for the tenor voice, the composer also left an important legacy of music for baritone. Characteristically, Britten’s output for low voice was also inspired by the talents of specific performers with whom he was closely associated, among them Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and John Shirley-Quirk. In addition to song-cycles, individual songs and folksong arrangements, Britten wrote challenging baritone roles in operas as diverse as Billy Budd (1951), Owen Wingrave (1970) and Death in Venice (1972)—the title role of the second of these made very much Gerald Finley’s own in his magnificent interpretation in Margaret Williams’s 2001 television film of the opera.

This disc contains Britten’s two important song cycles for baritone: Tit for Tat, setting the poems of Walter de la Mare, and the more substantial and challenging Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. The latter was written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; designed to showcase his unique blend of intense lyricism and dramatic characterization, qualities which are undoubtedly also exhibited by Gerald Finley.

Also included are some of Britten’s popular folksong settings, and a selection of later songs, which received exposure and publication only after the composer’s death in December 1976.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Although Britten is particularly celebrated for the substantial body of music he composed for the tenor voice—almost all of it directly inspired by the artistry of his long-term partner and creative muse, Peter Pears—the composer also left an important legacy of music for baritone. Characteristically, Britten’s output for low voice was also inspired by the talents of specific performers with whom he was closely associated, among them Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, John Shirley-Quirk, Owen Brannigan and Benjamin Luxon. In addition to song-cycles, individual songs and folksong arrangements, Britten wrote challenging baritone roles in operas as diverse as Billy Budd (1951), Owen Wingrave (1970) and Death in Venice (1972)—the title role of the second of these made very much Gerald Finley’s own in his magnificent interpretation in Margaret Williams’s 2001 television film of the opera. Even when Britten was writing for other singers, however, Pears’s influence remained apparent in the composer’s choice of texts for musical setting, which often reflected the tenor’s literary tastes as well as Britten’s own.

The many poems set to music by Britten when he was a prolific schoolboy composer date from long before he met Pears, and the composer’s literary choices were at that early stage fairly conservative. Britten’s favourite poet during his youth was Walter de la Mare, and in 1968 the mature composer assembled a set of five of his juvenile settings of de la Mare’s poetry under the title Tit for Tat, which was given its first performance by John Shirley-Quirk and the composer at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1969. In his programme note written for the occasion, Britten commented that he had made his selection from songs composed between the ages of fourteen and seventeen; he said that he had ‘cleaned them very slightly, and here at this first performance, offer them in gratitude to the poet’s son, the wise and encouraging chairman of my new publishers, whose father’s poems have meant so much to me all through my life.’ (The reference was to Richard de la Mare, who was celebrating his seventieth birthday in that year, and who had become Chairman of Faber Music in 1966, having previously served as Chairman of the parent company Faber & Faber.) Britten’s punctilious attention to detail in his manuscripts meant that all the songs could be dated fairly precisely: ‘A Song of Enchantment’ was composed in January 1929, ‘Autumn’ (originally accompanied by string quartet) on 28 January 1931, ‘Silver’ on 13 June 1928, ‘Vigil’ on 23 December 1930, and the concluding title song in the first two weeks of 1929. In his preface to the published score, Britten noted that ‘oddly enough, the inadequacies seemed to be more striking in the later songs—new musical styles had appeared on the composer’s horizon too recently to be assimilated … At any rate, although I hold no claims whatever for the songs’ importance or originality, I do feel that the boy’s vision has a simplicity and clarity which might have given a little pleasure to the great poet, with his unique insight into a child’s mind.’

Four years before Shirley-Quirk gave the premiere of Tit for Tat, the Aldeburgh Festival had also been the venue for a more substantial and challenging baritone cycle, the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. Britten’s close association with the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau began in the early 1960s, and the baritone parts in Britten’s War Requiem (1962) and Cantata Misericordium (1963) had been written specifically for him to sing. Shortly afterwards the composer embarked on the composition of a solo song-cycle designed to showcase Fischer-Dieskau’s unique blend of intense lyricism and dramatic characterization, and Britten turned for inspiration to the vivid and sometimes visionary poetry of William Blake. Britten’s working title for the cycle—which was based on fourteen short but striking Blake texts selected by Pears—was Songs and Sentences of William Blake. The score was completed on 6 April 1965, the manuscript inscribed with the words ‘For Dieter: the past and the future’. The work, under its slightly revised title, was first performed by its dedicatee and composer at Aldeburgh’s Parish Church on 24 June 1965, and six months later the two men recorded their powerful interpretation for Decca at Kingsway Hall, London.

Britten’s Blake cycle returns in places to the dark intensity of his much earlier Blake setting, ‘The Sick Rose’ (‘Elegy’) from the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings of 1943. Both the fully chromatic melody and striking image of cankerous corruption in the earlier song look directly ahead to the Songs and Proverbs—which are based on texts drawn from Blake’s Songs of Experience (1794), in which ‘The Sick Rose’ is also to be found. With the addition of one poem from the Songs of Innocence (1789) and several epigrams from the undated Proverbs of Hell, Britten created a continuous structure in which the Proverbs are set to recurrent but constantly reworked ritornello material, a structural plan familiar from other Britten works of the late 1950s and early 1960s (principally the orchestral song-cycle Nocturne, the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Cantata Misericordium). These stark Proverbs are clearly distinguished from the songs they punctuate by their disconcerting lack of metrical synchronization between voice and piano—a feature retained from the Church Parable Curlew River, composed in the previous year—and they also make limited use of twelve-note techniques.

As so often in Britten’s later music, the tension between luminous diatonicism and elusive chromaticism is exploited throughout the cycle as a potent symbol for the conflict between innocence and experience at the heart of Blake’s poetry. The settings of ‘London’ and ‘Every Night and every Morn’ that frame the cycle are closely related in their ambiguous and subtly disturbing chromaticism, while greater tonal simplicity is reserved for natural scenes: the bright glow of ‘The Tyger’ and the lament for ‘The Fly’. Moments of tremendous rhetorical power are strategically located in ‘A Poison Tree’ and ‘Ah, Sun-flower’. ‘A Poison Tree’ features a highly original use of simple major and minor triads within a context of chromatic saturation. The young Britten had previously set this same Blake text to music on 2 March 1935; the earlier song remained unperformed until 1986, and is also included in the present recording. As in the opera The Turn of the Screw (1954), the intense chromaticism of the mature treatment of this gripping text serves as a graphic symbol of cankerous evil, and forms the utterly chilling core of the cycle.

The last of Britten’s many published sets of folksong arrangements was prepared in the summer of 1976, shortly before his death, and featured harp rather than piano accompaniment since the composer had for some time been too ill to accompany Pears in public. The harpist Osian Ellis had accordingly become one of Pears’s regular accompanists, and the 1976 folksongs were designed to serve (as had Britten’s earlier folksong settings with piano) as popular encore items for the duo. ‘She’s like the swallow’ and ‘Bird Scarer’s Song’ were first performed in this capacity at the Aldeburgh Festival on 17 June 1976, and ‘Lemady’ was first performed at the University of Chicago on 10 November 1977. ‘David of the White Rock’ (‘Dafydd y Garreg Wen’) was a tribute to Ellis’s Welsh ancestry. The Eight Folksong Arrangements of which these songs formed part were published posthumously in two distinct editions in 1980, the original with harp accompaniment and an alternative version with piano accompaniment prepared by the composer’s music assistant Colin Matthews.

The other songs on the present disc also received exposure and publication only after the composer’s death in December 1976. Several date from the early 1940s when Britten and Pears were beginning to make their names in the USA as a recital duo: these include the setting of ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘The Crocodile’, the latter performed on 14 December 1941 at a concert given under the Auspices of the American Women’s Hospitals Reserve Corps at Southold High School in upstate New York, as part of a programme that also included Charles Dibdin’s ‘Tom Bowling’ (1789)—a song of which Britten later prepared his own realization, launched at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1959 and recorded by Pears in the same year. ‘I wonder as I wander’ was frequently performed alongside Britten’s folksong arrangements in his recitals with Pears following their return to the UK in 1942, but they never recorded or published it since they subsequently discovered that the words and melody were not in the public domain: the song had been published by John Jacob Niles in 1934, and in direct consequence Britten’s version did not receive its first recording until 1995, thanks to a belated special arrangement between Niles’s publishers and the Britten Estate. The triptych ‘Evening’, ‘Morning’ and ‘Night’ (first published in 1988) originally formed part of the incidental music Britten composed in 1945 for the Masque and Anti-Masque of This Way to the Tomb, a play by Ronald Duncan, who in the following year went on to provide the libretto for Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia.

Two other songs date from the 1950s, although the date of the second remains uncertain. In 1952, Britten prepared a comic duet arrangement of the Appalachian folksong ‘The Deaf Woman’s Courtship’ for Kathleen Ferrier to sing as part of a national tour with Pears and Britten conceived with the aim of raising funds for the English Opera Group. According to Britten’s memoir of Ferrier, she sang her part ‘in a feeble, cracked voice, the perfect reply to Peter’s magisterial roar. A masterpiece of humour, which had the audience rocking, but never broke the style of the rest of the concert.’ After Ferrier’s untimely death, the contralto part was taken over by Norma Procter, though the arrangement was to remain unpublished until 2001. Britten’s setting of Goethe’s ‘Um Mitternacht’ (published in 1994) was probably composed in 1959, shortly after the composer’s strong interest in German poetry had borne fruit in his tenor song-cycle Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente. At this time, Pears was enjoying an enviable reputation as one of the leading exponents of Lieder in the world, repeatedly earning ecstatic reviews in the German press that inspired the BBC to capitalize on this success by carefully promoting his and Britten’s work in Germany.

Mervyn Cooke © 2010

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