Benjamin Britten is undoubtedly the best of them all when it comes to setting English poetry to music. His knowledge of his native verses was apparently encyclopaedic, covering a vast range of lyric poetry from the 16th century to his day.
In his early work he had often worked with the insistent WH Auden, but with 1944 Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, he launches himself. The first thing noticed in the cycle is the horn. The work was written for and in consultation with Dennis Brain, the finest soloist of his generation who was tragically to die young while pursuing his passion for cars. Britten designed the opening and closing tones of the piece to be played on the instrument’s open valves, which led to early criticism that the soloist had pitch problems.
The work was quickly recorded with the composer and his dedicates less than a year after its premiere, and it was this recording with the Boyd Neel Orchestra on Decca that became the model for all subsequent recordings of the work. . Pears and Brain would revisit the work under Eugene Goossens (also Decca) over the next decade and it was this later recording that really set the benchmark with the two soloists very experienced in the work at this time ( i.e. if the listener is a fan of Pears’ voice).
My personal appreciation of Britten will run through later tenors with more melodious voices like Rolfe Johnson and Bostridge and more heroic types with greater power and range of vocal colors like Jon Vickers and Robert Tear. And it is in this last category that Andrew Staples falls.
Staples has already established itself as an excellent representative of 20th century English music and has performed these acclaimed cycles by artists such as Sir Simon Rattle. As a former Rattle’s assistant, conductor Daniel Harding is an ideal choice to record this repertoire. The Swedish orchestra’s horn soloist is the excellent Swedish orchestral leader, Christopher Parkes, born and trained in England, who proves to be a noble choice for Britten. Not only does it effectively trace and support the singer’s vocal line, but its use and palette of instrumental colors and effects make it as fine-tuned as on any other recording available.
Although I can revel in the sheer beauty of sound offered by Ian Bostridge on his two excellent recordings (with Rattle and Metzmacher on EMI), here and on the other two cycles on this disc (the oldest The Illuminations which fixes Rimbaud Fr french and the Night), Staples is such a sensitive and eloquent performer, one who colors the lyrics with emotion without resorting to swaggering vocal force. He and his fellow soloists work together as an effective team without becoming overdone or arched in their delivery while evoking a wide variety of emotions. This is a fine modern addition to what is a popular collection of Britten’s finest orchestral song cycles.
Available on Apple Music
Works: The Illuminations; Serenade for tenor, horn and strings; Night
Performers: Andrew Staples, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding
Label: Harmonia Mundi HMM902267