Ian Bostridge is an artist who divides opinion. Some find his timbre too reedy and his attention to detail too mannered for their taste – though similar objections were once raised to the great original interpreter of these songs, Peter Pears. Bostridge does occasionally lapse here into an old tendency to swell dynamics on individual notes at the expense of line; and he alloys a convincing account of the Michelangelo Sonnets with a self-consciously ‘Italianate’ inflection of the opening phrase of its final number.
That said, he has surely done nothing finer than this immaculately recorded new release. He is superbly partnered by Antonio Pappano, whose balancing of textures and beauty of touch sometimes surpass – dare it be said? – Britten’s own recordings. Together, they find fresh significance in some of the less familiar settings, as when Bostridge launches ‘Lines of Life’, the final song of the Hölderlin Fragments, with an unearthly mezza voce, while Pappano coldly unfolds its web of accompanying counterpoint. And in the final English setting of the underrated late cycle Who are these children? on verses of the Scottish poet William Soutar, Bostridge’s contained anger as he contemplates blood of children killed by a wartime bomb is chillingly offset by Pappano’s pointing of the air-raid siren echoes in piano part.
Add to these the accompaniments of the young Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang in the Songs from the Chinese – crisper, if marginally less colourful than Julian Bream’s original recording – and one has an essential addition to the Britten discography.