Benjamin Britten

Alexandra Coghlan
Musical Criticism (UK)

It was between 1939 and 1942—during his time in America—that Benjamin Britten first turned his attention to the folksong. Having left England at the outbreak of war along with other notorious Pacifists W.H. Auden and Peter Pears, Britten publicly espoused the view that England was 'finished'. In private however the composer began work on a volume of English folksongs arranged for tenor voice and piano—the first of six produced throughout his career.

While the earlier work of Vaughan Williams, Cecil Sharpe and George Butterworth treats its folk sources with a reverence that freezes them into a perpetually and inherently nostalgic musical landscape, Britten's reworkings— for his manipulation surely goes beyond the scope of 'arrangements'—are far freer, deploying the traditional melodies within a self-aware and distinctly contemporary sensibility. In Britten's hands the lyricism and 'quiet…charm' of English melodies remains, but is paired with a daring technique and bolder harmonic style that brings out the subversive violence and grief of many of the songs, as well at times as their playful modernity.

… it should be said at the outset that Steve Davislim 's disc is a joy, charming  … Supported by the intelligent accompaniment of Simone Young this young Australian tenor rollicks and croons his way through a broad selection of Britten's earliest folksong adaptations including oft-performed classics 'The Salley Gardens' and 'O Waly Waly' as well as lesser known works 'Tom Bowling', 'Avenging and Bright', 'Oft In the Stilly Night'.

With a pleasingly rounded tone that is as full as is possible without straying into heroic territory, Davislim provides a more robust approach to the repertoire than the feather-light English school of Phillip Langridge, Ian Bostridge, or even Peter Pears himself; this in turn gives Young greater scope to relish Britten's meticulously constructed piano parts without fear of challenging the melodic line, a fact she takes full advantage of throughout, leaving the listener in little doubt of the piano-voice interplay upon which the success of these songs so depends.

The disc's high points are mostly among the brisker more full-blooded numbers; these allow Davislim to release the fuller tone which seems to come most naturally … The joyously affirmative 'Come You Not From Newcastle' however, with its gradually decaying accompaniment, allows Davislim to make a virtue of his youthful energy, and the warmth of his vocal tone here adds conviction in the high tessitura of the refrain where lighter voices tend to struggle. Equally convincing is Davislim's 'The Minstrel Boy' whose militaristic pomp and heroic sentiment are rendered as straight-faced as the poet himself …

[this disc] has a persuasive charm that suits these songs well. While Britten's sophisticated songs take their melodies musical miles from their rustic contexts, they are nevertheless the bravura works of a young composer with much to prove, and themselves occasionally stray into brashness or self-congratulatory demonstrations of skill. Davislim's bold approach and full tones match the extrovert spirit of the youthful Britten, and the result is a disc that gives a lively and faithful account of these beloved works.