Benjamin Britten

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare (USA)

Britten was not committed to folk songs in the way that Grainger was, but he did set a fair number. This splendid collection presents about half of them, including the bulk of the British (including Irish) songs he arranged for voice and piano. They tend, on the whole, to be more polished, less coarse and irregular, less virtuosic, and less daring in harmony and texture than Grainger’s—as is obvious if you compare Britten’s setting of Early One Morning with Grainger’s 1940 voice-and-piano equivalent. In addition, while it would be hard to call this music consistently bright (in his excellent notes, David Pear provocatively insists that “folksongs are rarely happy”), there’s less violence in Britten than in Grainger. It’s emblematic of their differences in attitude that Britten set Sweet Polly Oliver while Grainger gravitated to Bold William Taylor. Both are stories of women who cross-dress to follow their military lovers; but Bold William Taylor requires an act of murder before it can twist to its ironically successful conclusion, whereas Sweet Polly Oliver merely needs an act of charity. Then, too, when violence does emerge, pacifist Britten backs away from it in a way that the sadomasochistic Grainger would not: Avenging and Bright is not really the kind of song that drew the best from Britten. Still, for all their relative decorum and reserve, these are far from neutral settings. Most striking are the otherworldly accompaniment of Greensleeves, the nightmarish rendering of Miller of Dee, and the odd harmonies that distort Last Rose of Summer; but there are subtle twists elsewhere in the program as well.

Steve Davislim has been praised often on these pages—and for good reason. He has a luxurious but extremely flexible voice, and he sings this repertoire with tremendous imagination when it comes to phrasing and timbre, especially in the darker or the more sentimental songs like Sally in our Alley (the more straightforward heartiness of The Plough Boy seems to interest him less). Philip Langridge..has clearer enunciation and, perhaps, a slightly deeper appreciation of textual nuance; but Davislim’s vocal opulence more than compensates. Simone Young, best known as a conductor, accompanies deftly, knowing precisely how to make the piano’s contributions come across without elbowing her partner aside. Melba’s sound, especially in the tactfully engineered surround-sound tracks, gives an excellent sense of an acoustic space. Highly recommended. Peter J. Rabinowitz