Benjamin Britten

15/09/2009
Stephen Eddins
All Music Guide (US)

Benjamin Britten wrote many of his Folksong Arrangements with Peter Pears' voice in mind, and they are frequently performed by tenors with a light quality similar to Pears, so it's a pleasant change to hear them sung by a tenor with a more substantial, almost baritonal quality. Australian Steve Davislim has such a voice, and he avoids the preciousness, which, in spite of Pears' intelligence and musicality, sometimes colored his performances. Davislim's expertise in the bel canto tradition is never in question, but he has an unaffected manner that makes him imminently believable singing melodies that were essentially the popular music of earlier times. He also brings the songs an intelligence and interpretive sensitivity that are congruent with Britten's subtle manipulation of the material. These are not merely transcriptions, but skillful arrangements that bear the unmistakable imprint of his creative personality. Some arrangements, like the lovely, elegiac ‘The Salley Gardens’, are relatively straightforward, and others, such as ‘The Ash Grove’, are harmonized with considerable sophistication.  Britten uses bitonality and tonal clashes subtly enough to heighten the drama of the songs' narratives without turning them into modernist manifestos. The overwhelming mood of these songs is one of loss and undemonstrative melancholy, and the composer's treatment and Davislim's understated beautiful performances capture that tone. Much credit goes to pianist Simone Young; Britten rarely changes the melodic line, so it's in the piano part that he shapes of the character of the songs, and Young delivers a vivid accompaniment. The sound of Melba's SACD is clean, warm, and nicely intimate.