Benjamin Britten

Carter Chris Humphray
Classique News (France)

The Australian tenor Steve Davislim has already recorded for Melba in the very successful resurrection of Saint-Saëns’ opera Hélène (where he sings Pâris, under the baton of Guillaume Tourniaire); here, it’s another composer and another time. Voluntarily uprooted from his homeland because of the war which was ravaging the old world, the nostalgic Benjamin Britten found himself  – by 1941 in the United States – recalling folksongs from his native England. The composer wrote songs up until 1976 (then well after his return to Britain) taking inspiration also from Ireland and even from France. He used an almost aristocratically subtle technique, consisting of filtered borrowings, adaptations and elegant reappropriation of folksongs – often creating a certain remove or distance in which the performers can be free to interpret. This is the precise point of value of this lyric and pianistic recital (because the accompaniment of Simone Young – renowned conductor and musical director at Hamburg State Opera since 2005 – is every bit the equal of the tenor’s art).  

Britten possesses a vague melancholy as a traveller and pioneer in the improbable worlds of memory and resentment. Recollections of the past accord with present-day sadness and this singer knows how to capture all the nuances of feeling thus invoked: a more rustic suggestion for ‘The Trees They Grow So High’, ‘The Plough Boy’ (cast like a march full of almost heroic swagger) or for ‘Foggy Foggy Dew’. Although always sublimated to the composer’s imagination, Steve Davislim deploys a rich and pointed tone (just as in his recent success on disc with a superb recital of lyrical symphonic poems by Vierne and Chausson, again on Melba with the title Turbulent Heart and much beloved of the CD editor of Classique News). ‘The Ash Grove’ shows a tenderly sweet evocation (perhaps of the magic woods of his native land?) which transports one to Arcadian fields; the characterfully cutting portrait of 'Oliver Cromwell' brings to light the tenor’s skills in articulation and natural musicality as much as the requisite expressive qualities of the interpreter. All this serves to bring to mind the tenor and partner of Britten, for whom the composer reserved his best songs.   

Davislim and Young make an admirable and often miraculously fine duo of subtlety and expression. Britten could not find better ambassadors for his melodic outpouring, melancholic and ecstatic by turn. The SACD recording (a technological feature always standard with CDs from this excellent Australian label) only adds weight to the evocative scope of the performance. The superbly realised nuances in the piano part – the reiterated bass in 'The Miller of Dee', for example – creates a relationship between voice and instrument that is ideally done). This Britten recital is crafted with the best possible taste by these two Australian artists.