Benjamin Britten

John Miller

It is good to see Australia's newest tenor not only making rapid headway in his opera rôles, but also keeping his repertoire broad with orchestral songs, main-stream lieder and now a delightful folksong recital.

Benjamin Britten began to arrange folksongs for himself and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, shortly after arriving in America as Pacifists after leaving England at the outbreak of World War II. Always with an eye to make money without paying too much in royalties, Britten was able to publish 6 volumes of these arrangements between the early years of the War and 1961. Because of the dreaded copyright difficulties, a final volume, including 'Tom Bowling' and 'Greensleeves' only appeared in 2001. The first dozen songs in Davislim and Young's selection are from the 1940s and the rest (apart from Tom Bowling and Greensleeves) are from the 1960s. Here is the song-list, including tunes and lyrics from England, Scotland and Ireland:

The Salley Gardens, Little Sir William, The Bonny Earl O’Moray, The Trees They Grow So High, The Ash Grove, Oliver Cromwell, The Plough Boy, Sweet Polly Oliver, The Miller of Dee, The Foggy, Foggy Dew, O Waly Waly, Come You Not From Newcastle, The Brisk Young Widow, Sally in Our Alley, Early One Morning, Ca’ the Yowes, Tom Bowling, Greensleeves, Avenging and Bright, How Sweet the Answer, The Minstrel Boy, Dear Harp of My Country, Oft in the Stilly Night, The Last Rose of Summer.

Although less robust and gritty in his folksong arrangements than the ebullient Percy Grainger, Britten invested these simple, beautiful melodies (and their often dark stories) with evocative and often complex piano accompaniments, sometimes harmonically very adventurous, but always drawing out and adding to the pristine character of the songs. To some degree, he elevates them to the level of art-songs, without loosing their raw earthiness or energy - although 'Little Sir William' sounds uncannily like a ‘40s cabaret song.

Stepping down from her usual conductor's podium, Simone Young is a creative and supportive partner for Davislim, and clearly the pair have great affection for these songs. They evidently set out to entertain us with this programme, seducing with eloquently flowing love songs, spitting political bile (Oliver Cromwell), catching the drama of The Bonny Earl of Moray, nudging us with tongue-in-cheek humour (The Plough Boy who rises through the ranks by theft and deceit), and chilling us with their other-worldly portrait of The Miller of Dee, who neither loves nor is loved.

Britten and Pears are of course the reference performers for these songs. Davislim, however, has a much more luxurious voice than the often pinched tone of Pears, and his richness of timbre and the warmth of his line in the love songs is a great advantage … Davislim's other-worldly Greensleeves and passionately ardent O Waly, Waly are two of many real gems in this collection.

Melba's 5.1 sound in the sympathetic spacious acoustic of a hall in Hamburg gives a lovely bloom to both voice and piano, surely making this the best-recorded set of Britten's Folksong arrangements on disc to date. The Digipak booklet has an interesting essay on the songs, and full texts in English …

Many of us would have sung these songs ourselves at school, if not in such artistically superb arrangements, and the timeless tunes have instant appeal. A disc to treasure, without doubt.

4½ stars performance/5 stars sonics