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On this island Op 11 [13'23]
Let the florid music praise! [3'36]
As it is, plenty [1'31]
The charismatic duo of James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook continue their exploration of English Song in 'My Beloved is Mine'. This new recording explores the song cycles of Benjamin Britten On this island, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, and includes the Canticle 'My Beloved is Mine'.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
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It was a form Britten felt drawn to throughout his life, from miniatures in his school days to the fourth canticle of 1971; even thereafter, feeling perhaps that his playing days were behind him, he creates works for harp and voice – folksongs, the Birthday Hansel for the Queen Mother, the fifth canticle – where the hands of Osian Ellis take over from his own. Our choice for this recording includes music composed over ten years from 1937 to 47, and we have decided to concentrate on the larger cycles or sets of songs. These, together with the later Winter Words (which we have already recorded for Linn), are the central ‘meat’ of his output for tenor and piano. This ten-year span also encompasses the war and Peter Grimes. The war for Britten meant (amongst other things) the articulation and defence of his pacifism (and his consequent ostracism), and his three-year stay in America. Grimes, first performed in 1945, put Britten centre-stage in the British musical world and established him as a major figure internationally. It was a watershed for him. His reputation since has remained rightly secure.
On this island dates from 1937 when Britten was 24. This is the year when two important meetings took place: with Peter Pears and with W. H. Auden, while Britten and Auden were working in the GPO film unit. The songs of On this island are part of a large group of works which this meeting of minds seeded. And they show at once Britten’s striking wish to stride out with a new, fresh style. Clearly delineated part-writing and transparent structure combine with a tight motivic development and an easy melodic gift. The poems are amongst Auden’s less opaque, and Britten demonstrates his honest ability to distil a thought or an idea and to present it uncluttered. The poem is the servant of the music. Indeed there are here (fewer than in later works) the trademark ‘liberties’ of Britten’s treatment of poetry: a repeated word here, a deliberately interrupted rhythm there. It is striking that after his work with Auden, he chose, by and large, to set long-dead poets. Perhaps they complained less. Trumpet fanfares welcome us into a joyful hymn of praise to our lover’s beauty. The ‘vigilance of breath’ inspires Britten to give us his ‘sleep’ motif: the long/short susurration perhaps an echo of the sleeping lover’s breathing. This motif is heard again in the fourth song of the set ('Nocturne'), and turns up in later works (Now sleeps the crimson petal, and the longer Nocturne Op 60) to such great effect. In this first song the opening ecstasy remains unsuppressed by the un-loving forces in the world. 'Now the leaves are falling fast' contrasts a rigid self-righteous straightjacket which contains an unbearable agitation with the opening and closing drops of crystal being the ‘cold, impossible … mountain’s head’. One can run on endlessly about what Auden might mean, but I can’t help feeling that the thinly-veiled erotic images must be at least part of where Auden wants to lead us: propriety and social normality suffocate lust and true essence. This thought seems prevalent. 'Seascape' is a refreshingly straightforward portrait, underpinned with beautiful economy by a surging-wave figuration. The last song, 'As it is, plenty', is almost Noël Coward. The biting irony is deliciously underplayed.
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne fling us into altogether a darker world. The set dates from 1945 when Britten had returned from his self-imposed American exile. The war was over. On his return, he (with, amongst others, Yehudi Menuhin) took part in a visit to a recently liberated concentration camp. The dark, serious songs of the Donne set seem to rise from this appalling experience of human cruelty. The poetry is of an older age, and deals with the struggle to make sense of human sexuality and fallibility in a world dominated by inhuman doctrine and hierarchy. God stands at once both distant and personal; faith is sorely tested, but remains secure. Britten finds here fertile ground. This is a profound and intellectual work, and makes great demands on both performers and audience. I find it hugely moving to perform, feeling that we and the audience have travelled a significant path together. The symmetry of the work is clear and effective. We begin with a strident, sweeping vocal line set against the rhythmic heartbeat in the piano. We shall re-meet this vocal line in the passacaglia of the last movement ('Death, be not proud') where the melodic resolution of the span of the minor ninth to octave is mirrored by the harmonic resolution from B minor to major. This declamatory, fearful, almost empty (two-part writing, by and large) opening movement leads us to the first fast movement ('Batter my heart'). The poet begs to be overwhelmed by the divine, so that his earthly preoccupations – surely devilish work – should be drowned in a sacred love. The terror of his helplessness when confronted by his human passions is mirrored in mood and motif in the eighth song ('Thou hast made me') where the melodic shape of 'Batter my heart' – three descending notes followed by a rising fourth – is reversed. Within these four symmetrical outer movements the inner five distil their shapes and structure from the outer shell. 'O might those sighes and teares' uses exactly the same melodic shape as 'Batter my heart', but Britten plays with crushing seconds to sigh and weep with the guilty lover. Agitation and despair return in 'Oh, to vex me', with a piano part composed almost entirely of seconds and fourths. The poet bewails his own hypocrisy: preaching one day, sinning the next. Rising fourths underpin What if this present. The sentiment feels uncomfortable and logically flawed: beauty can only be an outward manifestation of goodness, wicked souls are housed in ugly bodies. But the pillow-talk insincerity seems to emphasise the falsity of the sentiment. There is no hint of insincerity in 'Since she whom I loved'. Donne had risked his life and soul for the love of Anne More (grand-niece of Sir Thomas); this sonnet is a product of his grief at her death. Britten’s treatment is tender, rich and compassionate. It is the heart of the work, and a glorious song. Britten puts rests in the vocal line in, at first sight, unusual places, avoiding the obvious breathing places, or the natural ebb of syntax. Over a rocking triplet rhythm of softly shifting major chords, the result is an unbreakable extended vocal line arching over time. Trumpets peal in shimmering fourths in 'At the round earth’s imagined corners'. There is something in this song that has echoes of 'Oh my Black soule!': the slow-moving tempo, the pivot of F sharp, the death-bed setting, the arpeggiated figuration. After the desperate, breathless 'Thou hast made me', 'Death, be not proud' (one of Donne’s most well-known poems) is a homage to Purcell. Britten (and Tippett) had been bringing the work of Purcell to public attention, and both composers found themselves deeply affected by this meeting over the centuries. 'Death, be not proud' is set over a ground bass of five bars’ length. Britten’s working – especially the delightful refusal to conform to the metrical beginnings and endings of the bass – mirror Purcell’s genius when working in this form.
The sonnet was clearly a poetic shape that Britten found enormously attractive: the Serenade (1943) ends with Keats’ sonnet; the Nocturne (1958) with one of Shakespeare’s. Five years before the Donne sonnets, Britten set Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. Written in 1940 in America, Britten has surely deliberately chosen to set work of an incomparably great Italian from a happier time in that country’s history. And his wish to work in a language other than English (Les Illuminations dates from a year earlier) surely shows his determination to put an English writer of song on the international stage, to integrate England, to un-island it. Michelangelo is not greatly valued as a poet (prolific though he was) but these poems express a simple, uncluttered, unfettered love and show perplexity that this in itself should not be enough in the worldly sphere. Britten’s setting is understated and honest. The lover’s trials do not seem insurmountable; a wonderful irrepressible sunniness shines through this set of songs, written as a gift from one lover to another. The songs and poems are suffused with a wholesome and straightforward worship of the beautiful form. There is something appropriately statuesque in the noble opening song, 'Sì come nella penna'. Breathless with off-beat accents yet long-phrased, the whys and wherefores of the second song 'A che più debb’io mai' give way to the sacrifice of self to the lover. 'Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi' is quite the cousin of 'Since she whom I loved'. Using major triads and arpeggios, we sense the world through our beloved’s eyes, ears and mind. Three faster, agitated, frustrated movements follow exploring the agonies of unrequited love, lost love and love ill-understood by the world around, and the breathless excitement of the mixing of souls in love fulfilled. Nobility returns in the arcing sweep of 'Spirto ben nato', and Britten allows himself hints of voluptuous harmonisation of the triadic melody. The cycle ends in the ecstatic contentment of D major.
Canticle I ‘My beloved is mine’ dates from 1947 and is the first of five very different works that Britten titled ‘canticle’. Again, Britten chooses to set poetry of an older age. Francis Quarles (1592–1644) has written a psalm-like poem based on the Song of Solomon, with short antiphonal phrases. Although set as a single span, it clearly divides into four movements. An opening barcarolle rocks to the motion of the two streams which meet in one (very much the mirror of 'S’un casto amor'). A recitative follows ('If all those glittering monarchs') harmonised with splashes of sunlight as it were from the previous movement. A presto section ('Nor time nor place') decays into a longer lento ('He is my altar') with a Purcellian back-dotted rhythm that reminds me of the opening of the John Donne sonnets. Ending in a beautiful arpeggiated vocal line over a serene G major, this work is a miniature masterpiece.
Anna and I are enormously lucky to have this opportunity to record these glorious works: works which she and I have grown to know over many years and many performances. I hope this record will help to show how important song was to Benjamin Britten, and how these works explore an intimate, personal part of this great man. We are very proud of this recording, I hope you enjoy it.
James Gilchrist © 2012