Britten: Folksongs with guitar and piano; Songs from the Chinese; Canticle II (Abraham and Isaac)

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: IMP
WORKS: Folksongs with guitar and piano; Songs from the Chinese; Canticle II (Abraham and Isaac)
PERFORMER: Paul Esswood (countertenor), James Griffett (tenor), Judith Ridgway (piano), Timothy Walker (guitar)
CATALOGUE NO: MCD 57 DDD
Britten’s arrangements of folksongs manage to combine the originals’ lack of sophistication with an almost Schubertian approach to their accompaniment, and are as representative of his masterly song writing as are his own creations. This selection derives from his sets both with piano (1943 and 1947) and with guitar (1961) and feature many of the best and best-known, among them ‘The Salley Gardens’ (simply but poignantly harmonised), ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew’, ‘The Ash Grove’ (with its delightful drift into bitonality towards the end), ‘O Waly, Waly’ and ‘The Ploughboy’.

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The groups are divided between the two singers. Contrary to received opinion about the lack of expressive variety inherent in the countertenor voice, Paul Esswood is actually the more colourful interpreter. His ‘Salley Gardens’ may lack the pathos of Peter Pears’s (Decca), but one senses a real enjoyment in their varying moods. James Griffett, who takes the lion’s share of the solo items, is less successful, often sacrificing evenness of line for too exaggerated an emphasis on diction. The accompaniments are both sensitive and witty.

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The disc also includes the Mahlerian Songs from the Chinese for tenor and guitar (1957) and the two singers join forces for a moving performance of Abraham and Isaac, the second of Britten’s five canticles. Matthew Rye