Benjamin Britten

John France
MusicWeb International (UK)

I first heard ‘The Salley Gardens’ some 37 years ago. It was in the music department of my old school, Coatbridge High. One of the sixth-formers was preparing for a recital, and Britten's arrangement was part of this. At that time, I was 'into' Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, so Britten's arrangement came as a surprise. It was simple, straight-to-the-point and quite simply beautiful. Even at 16 years old I thought it was one of the loveliest things I had ever heard.

My father had a recording of Kathleen Ferrier singing, amongst other things, ‘O Waly, Waly’ in his LP collection and I remember liking that song best—along with Herbert Hughes's 'I know where I am going'.

At round about the same time I found an old Decca 7' record containing some six songs, in the notorious Glasgow Barras! These were the definitive recordings by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten at the piano. I seem to remember that it included ‘Sweet Polly Oliver’, ‘O Waly, Waly’ and ‘The Plough Boy’. It was a wee while later that I discovered that there were literally dozens of these folksong arrangements by Britten. However, it was many years before I heard the complete run. My impression was, and remains, that the entire collection is a masterpiece—both from the point of view of Britten's catalogue and from the world of classical vocal music in general … perhaps most important is the fundamental recording by the composer and Peter Pears on Decca London. Love him or loathe him, Pears is the touchstone for all subsequent recordings.

Turning to the present CD, my bottom line is that it is superb. It is does not supersede any past recordings, but it is well and truly in the trajectory of Pears, Ferrier, Langridge, Thomas Allen et al. Steve Davislim, a fine Australian tenor, is able to generate a wide variety of moods as he tackles each of these songs. His vocalism is perfectly capable of showing joy, sadness, happiness, fear, tragedy and wit as he progresses from song to song and verse to verse. And the pianist must not be forgotten. The accompaniments are integral to these songs and a performance cannot be satisfying without a fine pianist. Some of the songs have an 'easy' accompaniment and some are 'difficult' but all of them require a good technique and a strong sympathy to effect the near-perfect fusion between words, vocal line and piano. Sometimes it can be interesting to listen to the piano rather than the soloist! There are many surprises, delight and felicities in these pages.

For me three highlights are ‘O Waly, Waly’, ‘Tom Bowling’ and ‘Greensleeves’. ‘O Waly Waly’ was collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset and is really an ironic little love song with a twist in the tail. ‘Tom Bowling’ is perhaps best known for its place in Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on Sea Songs and finally ‘Greensleeves’ is one of the archetypical tunes of England. Believed to have been written by King Henry VIII, it has appeared in many guises down the ages. I felt that Davislim and Young gave these three songs the very best sort of interpretation. They certainly hold their own against the competition. Listen to this example of their art with this excellent performance of 'The Foggy, Foggy Dew' on YouTube.

It is not necessary to give a complete description of these songs and their development. However, it is essential to understand that Britten began to compose them whilst he was still in 'exile' in the United States. This was during the early 1940s. To some extent they represent the composer looking back across the Atlantic at the country he loved, had left, felt was doomed to be conquered by the Germans and finally, to which he returned in 1942. There were eventually to be Six Volumes of folksong arrangements—three dedicated to British Songs, one to Moore's Irish Melodies, one to specifically English tunes and one to French songs. In addition there are some 13 uncollected folksongs - some published, others unpublished. Some 14 were arranged for soloist and orchestra. Finally, there is a set of Eight Folksong Arrangements for High Voice and Harp. All these songs are available in the fine Boosey & Hawkes Collected Edition. The vast bulk of these arrangements were made between 1942 and 1958. However the Eight Folksongs were not published until 1976.

I often wonder how to approach a disc like this. It is not fair to the performers or the composer to listen carefully to the first six songs and then gradually switch off during the last 18! The 'complete' edition gives an obvious solution to this dilemma—a 'book' can be listened to at a sitting.

The present selection is largely chronological, so it is possible to divide this CD into manageable chunks. Songs 1–6 are from Volume 1, songs 7–12 from Volume 2, songs 13–16 from Volume 3 and songs 19–24 from Volume 4. Two additional arrangements appear—‘Tom Bowling’ from the 'Oddities' and ‘Greensleeves’ which is not part of the official published volumes.

This is a great CD. I am only sorry that it comprises only extracts from the 'collected' works, and is not a complete edition. Yet I guess that is largely impossible for a single soloist. Positively, this is a fine introduction to some of the loveliest and most attractive songs in the vocal repertoire. They are … beautifully performed by both the singer and the accompanist. And most importantly of all I feel that Steve Davislim thoroughly enjoys singing these songs.