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Hyperion Records

CDA67459 - Britten, Finzi & Tippett: Songs
Recording details: February 2004
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: February 2005
Total duration: 76 minutes 1 seconds

TOP TEN RECORDS OF THE YEAR 2005 (Paul Driver & Stephen Pettitt) - The Sunday Times
TOP 10 CDs OF THE YEAR 2005 - The Sunday Telegraph

'This is still a voice of youthful freshness, commanded with skill and assurance. The programme tests his musicianship very thoroughly, and it reveals also considerable powers of expressiveness, both forthright and subtle … Vignoles is marvellously clear in notes (often fiendishly difficult) and rhythm, and he contributes an excellent essay' (Gramophone)

'Sung by Mark Padmore who, on this form and in this repertory, seems to me to be unrivalled among younger English tenors … With Roger Vignoles as the Britten-like pianist, this ranks as one of the finest discs of English songs to have been issued for some years' (The Sunday Telegraph)

'Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles perform all these songs with great understanding and sensitivity; in fact I was surprised at how much intensity of feeling they found in the stark Hölderlein songs. Padmore is equally at ease with the minutely expressive wordsetting of the Britten songs and the long, soaring lines of the Tippett' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is a remarkable debut recital by one of the most intelligent, musical and thoughtful British singers before the public today. It's not easy listening, but Padmore and Vignoles demonstrate song's unique power to shake, stir and move. The recorded balance is ideal, but no company is more experienced in the art-song repertoire than Hyperion. Another jewel in an already superlative crown' (International Record Review)

'Boyhood's End is more of a continuous cantata than a song cycle, and Padmore's concentration on the beauty of the continuous, excitable melisma is surely the right way to go, when Tippett's vocal writing is at it's early, florid best. Padmore's accurate tenor is really used as another, powerful instrument. The voice seems more played than sung' (Fanfare, USA)

Britten, Finzi & Tippett: Songs
Nightmare  [2'30] English
Black Day  [0'38] English
Bed-time  [1'06] English
Slaughter  [1'48] English
Supper  [1'40] English

This enthralling new recording from Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles finds its emotional heart in the theme of youth, and in particular the passage of time inherent in this all-too-transient phase of human existence.

Opening with Boyhood’s End by Sir Michael Tippett (whose centenary falls in 2005), we are transported through Gerald Finzi’s wondrous A Young Man’s Exhortation—to the poetry of Thomas Hardy—to three rarely performed works by Benjamin Britten. Who are these children?, twelve songs to words by William Soutar, is a fascinating response to the themes of innocent childhood (the ‘Scottish’ songs) and the tragic loss of this childhood (the ‘English’ songs—written as a reaction to war-time photographs published in 1941).

The Sechs Hölderlin-Fragemente have been neglected on the concert platform, not least because they are rare in Britten’s song output as being in German. The music owes something to its composer’s love of the lieder of Hugo Wolf. Um Mitternacht is Britten’s only setting of Goethe. There is some evidence that a cycle was planned, but in the event this single song had to wait till 1994 before it was published as part of the collection A Red Cockatoo & other songs.

Roger Vignoles sensitively brings life to the piano accompaniments beneath the ardent tenor of Mark Padmore, as performances and programme combine to create a most satisfying recital.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
No listener will expect a prize for guessing the theme linking the first three works on this CD. Boyhood’s End, A Young Man’s Exhortation, Who are these children? – the titles speak for themselves. As for Benjamin Britten’s Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, at least one song, Die Jugend, also concerns the transition from boyhood to manhood, while Um Mitternacht, Britten’s lone Goethe setting with which the CD concludes, recalls an epiphanic moment in the poet’s youth.

But there is a parallel thread running through the majority of these songs, most eloquently in Gerald Finzi’s cycle of Hardy poems and in the brief extracts of Hölderlin’s verse that Britten set to music for the fiftieth birthday of his friend Prince Ludwig of Hesse and the Rhine. This is the passage of time, not just as marked by moments such as the onset of adolescence or adulthood, but as it affects human existence throughout life and beyond. Thus Finzi’s Hardy cycle for tenor begins with the eponymous exhortation to ‘Exalt and crown the hour’, because ‘a fresh love-leaf crumpled soon will dry, / And that men moment after moment die’, and ends with the words ‘And mourn not me / Beneath the yellowing tree; / For I shall mind not, slumbering peacefully.’ Almost all the songs in the cycle are either viewed through time’s nostalgic lens, as in The Sigh, or measure human life against a larger span, as in The Comet at Yell’ham. The witty penultimate song, Transformations, explores a similar theme, a favourite of Hardy’s. This is the continuity of matter: ‘Portion of this yew / Is a man my grandsire knew, / Bosomed here at its foot.’

In such poems Hardy the countryman offers a modicum of comfort to offset his natural pessimism about human existence. The German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, inspired by the Hellenistic models he incorporated into his own verse, has a more spiritual take on the subject: ‘What here we are, can there by a god be completed / With harmonies and eternal recompense and peace.’ This image evokes an apt musical metaphor from Benjamin Britten, filling out the dry chromatic lines that pervade Die Linien des Lebens with a triumphant final cadence in E flat major. It is no coincidence that this cycle composed for a friend’s fiftieth birthday should also have included a song entitled Hälfte des Lebens (‘The middle of life’), though one hopes Prince Ludwig was not too disturbed by the bleak atmosphere either of Hölderlin’s words or of Britten’s heavy triplets.

In the case of Britten’s Who are these children? the Scottish poet William Soutar may be less preoccupied with time; undoubtedly the emotional and musical weight of the cycle is carried by the four ‘English’ songs, with their powerful indictment of war and the price it exacts in the blood of children. Nevertheless the passage of time is implicit in the seventh song, A Riddle (The child you were) and in Supper with its roll-call of the generations (‘Steepies for the bairnie … Parritch for a strappan lad … Stovies for a muckle man … A noggin for the auld carl …’), and becomes explicit in the final song, The Auld Aik, its grief for the passing of an era symbolized by the felling of the old oak.

Even the text of Michael Tippett’s Boyhood’s End is filtered through the passage of time, since the words are from W H Hudson’s autobiography Far away and long ago in which, as an old man, Hudson recalled his childhood in Argentina. ‘What, then, did I want?’ he asks, ‘then’ being his fifteenth birthday, the moment at which he first became aware of his peculiar contact with nature and of his fear of losing it.

Boyhood’s End
It was typical of Tippett that, commissioned to write a piece for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten on their return from the USA in 1943 (it was premiered by the dedicatees in 1945), he should have chosen to set not verse, but a prose text, and moreover to cast the work in the form of a Purcellian cantata, with four consecutive sections of strongly contrasted tempo and mood.

The influence of Purcell was critical for Tippett who, like Britten himself, felt strongly the need to get away from the Romantic–pastoral vein of previous generations of English composers, and sought a new approach through a harking back to the music of the pre-Romantic past. In the case of Boyhood’s End the Purcellian influence is largely structural, in the suggestion of recitative, arioso and aria, the melismatic vocal-writing and sometimes quasi-modal harmony, while the lean, energetic cross-rhythms owe as much to Tippett’s interest in jazz as to those in Elizabethan and Jacobean dance music. In this of course he had much in common with American contemporaries like Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter, who were tuned in to a similar Zeitgeist. (As an aside, I remember Tippett in a lecture once recalling a would-be composer who had asked him for comments on his compositions. Evidently these exhibited the worst tendencies of English Romanticism, for the young man went away greatly offended when Tippett told him that what he needed was a course in hot jazz.)

The opening of Boyhood’s End is strikingly dramatic. Vigorous piano octaves announce the simple question: ‘What, then, did I want?’ The answer – ‘I want only to keep what I have’ – is an astonishing outburst, extending those eight short words through fifteen bars of virtuoso vocal-writing, from the fortissimo top A flat of ‘want’, itself lasting two and a half bars, to the pianissimo E natural an octave and a half lower of ‘have’. From here, Tippett builds the rest of the first section in a series of waves, the first two culminating in fanfare-like cadenzas in the piano, the third in the ecstatic exclamation ‘Oh, those wild beautiful cries of the golden plover!’. This in turn launches an even more energetic outburst, in which two words – ‘uprising’ and ‘dance’ – are again stretched to inordinate length in the kind of hocketing, syncopated melismas that would only resurface in Tippett’s music fifteen years later, when he came to compose Achilles’ war cry in King Priam.

The Andante section that follows is a complete contrast. The slow, almost motionless octaves of the piano part, imperceptibly expanding and contracting, seem satiated with heat, while the voice swoons in falling intervals, heavy with the sensual overload of Hudson’s recollections. In the Allegro molto the notion of riding evokes predictably dotted rhythms, and the multitude of flora and fauna – storks, ibises, grey herons, flamingos – invites cascades of piano semiquavers. Finally calming down, the closing Allegro piacevole completes the idyll, the long lines in both voice and piano spanning the octaves from lowest bass to highest treble, as the youth lies gazing at the ‘white-hot whitey-blue sky’ and the myriads of balls of thistledown, the final line, with its long-held top A, being a metaphor for his emotional transportation.

Boyhood’s End must have presented a formidable challenge to its dedicatees. Two years later Britten was to return the compliment. His first Canticle, My Beloved is Mine, is also cast in four contrasting sections, and in its opening pages comes as close as Britten ever did to imitating Tippett’s ecstatic, syncopated vocal melismas.

A Young Man’s Exhortation
The art of Gerald Finzi may seem modest in comparison to that of such strong musical personalities as Tippett and Britten. Nevertheless, in the case of his settings of Thomas Hardy, he achieved the kind of symbiotic relationship between music and words that is only otherwise found in the greatest of song composers – Schumann and Heine, for instance, or Hugo Wolf and Mörike. If, as is often said of Wolf and Mörike, the identification is so close that you almost forget who wrote the words and who the music, this is even more the case with Finzi and Hardy. Indeed, what might be considered a limitation in Finzi’s style – its reticence, its relative uniformity and lack of ostentation – in this context becomes a virtue, allowing space for Hardy’s tangled syntax and donnish circumlocutions to make their point, and matching them with its own organic undergrowth.

Finzi himself must have felt this, together with an emotional affinity that ran very deep, for no fewer than five of his song-cycles – more than half his entire vocal output – are settings of Hardy. Of his piano parts, few are pianistic in the normal way (the bright, military swagger of the hussar’s song Budmouth Dears is a characteristic exception). Rather, they suggest the counterpoint of a string orchestra – for which Finzi also had a strong penchant, composing another of his cycles, Dies Natalis, for that medium – or of a church organ. Indeed, the frequently ecclesiastical overtones (Finzi was also a fine composer of church music) serve to underline the deep biblical roots of Hardy’s language. Significantly, Finzi divides the ten songs into two groups of five, prefacing each with a Latin quote from the Psalms, again underlining the element of time: ‘Mane floreat, et transeat / Vespere dedicat, induret, et arescat’ (‘In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up / In the evening it is cut down and withereth’).

Composed in 1933, A Young Man’s Exhortation contains some of Finzi’s most beautifully lyrical writing for the voice. This certainly has something to do with his choice of tenor for this cycle – most of his better-known Hardy cycles are for baritone – but also with Finzi’s skilful exploitation of the upper register to underline key words and sentiments. Thus in the opening of the very first song, a series of rising intervals dwells successively on E flat (‘Call off’), F (‘joys’), G (‘crown the hour’), and finally top A (‘Blind glee’). Similarly, in the first verse of The Sigh the contour of the voice part exactly matches the progress of the encounter, from its timid beginning (‘Little head against my shoulder’) to the almost startled top G of ‘kiss’ – a note already anticipated by the piano’s own depiction of the sigh in the song’s introduction.

In one of the cycle’s most magical effects, The Sigh actually ends not in G, but with a Schubert-like shift to E major. It is as if time has dropped a tender veil over the singer’s reminiscence, and Finzi does something similar in the second verse of The Comet at Yell’ham, bringing the voice down to earth as it were from its previously astronomical tessitura. Both here and elsewhere it is evident that the apparent simplicity of Finzi’s style often conceals an unexpected, and undervalued, sophistication.

Who are these children?
There is of course no chance of undervaluing the sophistication of either the thought or the composition of Benjamin Britten. In the case of his song-cycles, each is the product of careful planning, both in the choice of texts and in the way Britten seems to evolve a special musical language to correspond to that of the poet or poets he is setting. As an opera composer, Britten had an uncanny way of getting inside the speech-patterns of his characters. In a similar way both the Hölderlin Fragments and Who are these children? show a remarkable adaptation of his own essential style to the idioms of German and Scots respectively. In the case of the Hölderlin songs one senses strongly the influence of Hugo Wolf, especially in the opening and closing songs, while in Die Heimat the pianistic writing and the echoes of nature recall the Eichendorff songs of Schumann. In the Scots songs of Who are these children? it is above all the vocal inflection that is so brilliantly captured, though Britten is also adept at imparting a correspondingly nasal wheeze to the piano part, with its frequent suggestion of bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy.

William Soutar, who was born in Perth in 1898 and died in 1943, wrote his many delightful children’s poems in Scots, but chose English for his more ambitious poems. This double perspective of childlike innocence and adult consciousness had an obvious attraction for Britten, who incorporated four of the English poems into a selection of eight of the Scots. In keeping with the cycle’s framework, which is kept firmly at the level of childhood, Britten begins with a brisk call to arms, as if played on toy trumpet and drum (interestingly, the same toy drum can be heard tapping away in the left hand of the Hölderlin song Die Jugend), followed by the sunny, hands-in-pockets insouciance of A Laddie’s Sang. It is only with the third song, Nightmare, that the darker heart of the work is revealed, the uncanny atmosphere emphasized by a deliberate lack of synchronization between the voice and the piano’s right hand. In the next ‘English’ song, Slaughter, the heterophony is even more extreme, with the voice riding on a whirlwind canon between the two hands in octaves.

The third of the English poems, the ninth song in the sequence and the one that gives the work its title, was inspired by a war-time photograph that appeared in The Times Literary Supplement in 1941. Appropriately, it is one of Britten’s most vividly pictorial songs, not only in the brazen swagger of the hunting horns and the nonchalant sway of the voice – as if keeping a well-practised seat – but also in the arpeggiated sevenths that Britten smears across the keyboard at the words ‘Brightness of blood’, and the staccato crack of ‘whips’. But all this recedes as if into a distant haze – ‘Is there a dale more calm’ – until the final question is uttered as at one remove, with the hunting horns receding, still oblivious, into the distance.

This fade-out, followed by the domestic stasis of Supper (poised on the pedal-point of the piano’s augmented-fourth harmony like the still figures in a diorama), prepares the ground for the final ‘English’ song, The Children, in which Britten delivers his coup de grâce. Against the distant whine of the air-raid siren and the insidious drone of enemy bombers, the song evokes a terrible beauty as ‘Death came out of the sky / In the bright afternoon’. In the siren’s eerie glissando and the churning triads that portray the corruption of men’s hearts there are echoes of previous songs by Britten – the train-whistle in Winter Words and the bubbling cauldron of A Poison Tree from the Blake songs – and a truly Blakean despair in the broken tones of the last line: ‘And our charity is in the children’s faces’.

As the air-raid siren fades to nothing, its top note is transformed to the top D of a simple major triad, ushering in the final song, The Auld Aik. This however is not the song’s real tonality, but its leading note, and it is to the deep chord of E flat that we hear the repeated tolling of the word ‘doun’ that signals the end of everything. In Schubert and other lieder composers D major is the key of nature, of greenery and sunlight, E flat the key of night and darkness, and in this daringly simple gesture Britten underlines the change brought about by the loss of the old tree.

Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente
Although now regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets in the German language, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) died insane and in obscurity. It was only in the twentieth century that his genius was recognized, above all in naturalizing the forms and spirit of Greek poetry into the German language. As already observed, Britten chose his texts with care. First comes Menschenbeifall (‘Applause of men’), an appropriate choice for a work dedicated to the composer’s friend and patron. As in the first of the Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets, the piano strides proudly across the keyboard, before parodying the empty chatter of the crowd in bright staccato chords that seem to embody the sound of the German word ‘Quatsch’ (meaning both ‘chatter’ and ‘rubbish’). Only at the end does a gradual diminuendo suggest Britten’s scepticism about his own nearness to the gods. The second song, Die Heimat, is the most overtly Romantic and lyrical of the six. Falling sixths in the voice part evoke the singer’s happiness at returning home, carried on a stream of smoothly flowing triplets and supported by an echoing voice in the piano part. The warm sunset glow of this song perhaps reflects the peaceful home to which Pears and Britten were often welcomed by their German friends.

By contrast, Sokrates und Alcibiades is illumined by the bright, clear sunlight of Classical Greece. In a deftly simple gesture, Britten accompanies Alcibiades’ question with a single line of melody, as if played on an antique flute, which then reveals itself as the vocal melody to which Socrates frames his reply. (Those familiar with Death in Venice will recognize a similar lucidity in the passage where Aschenbach, in love with the boy Tadzio, questions an imaginary Socrates on the subject of passion and beauty.) In composing the fourth song, Britten must have been aware of parallels with Goethe’s poem Ganymed, of which he and Pears were sublime interpreters in Schubert’s version. But instead of the languorous ecstasy and heavenly apotheosis of Ganymede, Die Jugend is all childish play, with its tapping drum and wildly careering quavers, until the last page when Nature’s burgeoning trills finally bring the singer to manhood, with a ringing top G.

In contrast to such youthful exuberance, Hälfte des Lebens addresses the melancholy of middle life, with its sense that what has ripened is already overblown and can only now look forward to a cold and wintry old age. Here again Britten seems to echo Schumann, in both the weighty triplets of the piano part and the droopingly chromatic vocal line, while in the final song, Die Linien des Lebens, he returns to the more intellectual mode of Hugo Wolf. In music that is almost better appreciated by the eye than by the ear, traces of a kind of scala enigmatica creep insect-like across the page, only gradually coalescing into the harmony suggested by Hölderlin’s peroration. Despite its triumphant ending, it must be admitted that Britten’s setting brings the cycle to a rather austere conclusion. Musically satisfying perhaps, but with just a hint of more head than heart involved in its composition, and it may be this apparent austerity that lies behind the cycle’s relative neglect by performers.

Um Mitternacht
The Hölderlin songs, of course, make up Britten’s only cycle in the German language (which might also be a reason for its neglect). However the publication in 1994 of The Red Cockatoo & other songs revealed a fascinating glimpse of what might have been, in a single setting of Goethe. That Britten marked several other Goethe poems for composition suggests he was planning an entire cycle, but in the event only one song emerged. Written in 1959–60, shortly after the Hölderlin Fragments, Um Mitternacht is a much more radical, even experimental composition, in which the singer seems to walk suspended between heaven and earth. Twelve deep chords sound the twelve strokes of midnight – each to a different note of the chromatic scale, but progressing cyclically from A minor to the related home key of C minor – while the high treble pulsates with ‘Gestirn und Nordschein’ (‘stars and northern lights’). In this case Britten’s musical metaphor has a powerful resonance, not only providing a telling postscript to the Hölderlin cycle, but also touching on many of the themes – of youth, of age, of time – addressed by the other works on this recording.

Roger Vignoles © 2005

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