Britten: Quatre chansons françaises; Our Hunting Fathers; Sinfonietta; folksong arrangements

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Quatre chansons françaises; Our Hunting Fathers; Sinfonietta; folksong arrangements
PERFORMER: Ian Bostridge (tenor)Britten Sinfonia/Daniel Harding
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56534 2
One of Britten’s earliest mature works, Our Hunting Fathers, for full orchestra and ‘high voice’, has usually been sung by women. It was premiered in 1936 by the soprano Sophie Wyss, and the other available recordings, all made since 1982, are by Elisabeth Söderström, Heather Harper and Phyllis Bryn-Julson. It’s something of a departure, therefore, to have it sung by a man, though in fact there is nothing feminine about the texts. Devised by WH Auden using an original prologue and epilogue sandwiching two anonymous poems and one by Ravenscroft, the cycle is ostensibly themed on man’s attitude to animals; but with its oblique references to Nazism and quote from Lenin, it can also be read as a timely political metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man.

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Heather Harper’s account (Carlton BBC Radio Classics, at bargain price) has hitherto set the standard. Her emotional conviction makes it powerfully dramatic, and she negotiates impressively the savage demands of a score that calls for vertiginous coloratura, Sprechgesang and strange guttural sounds. Bostridge’s account, every bit as accomplished, is altogether more cerebral, but paradoxically this apparent underplaying of the drama makes the songs more startling. His voice, for all its tonal beauty, has a disquieting eeriness, and the clarity of his diction communicates not just meaning but atmosphere.

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The other outstanding advantage of this new version is Daniel Harding’s conducting. The orchestral sound is both brilliant and haunting, spare and spiky, and the quality of the playing – urgent strings, ethereal woodwind, punchy brass and other-worldly xylophone – first-rate. Claire Wrathall