Britten: Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo; The Holy Sonnets of John Donne; Winter Words

Our rating 
2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

LABELS: Carlton
WORKS: Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo; The Holy Sonnets of John Donne; Winter Words
PERFORMER: Justin Lavender (tenor)Julian Milford (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 30366 00562
Comparison may, indeed, be odious; but when it is inescapably present, as in the case of the formidable existing versions of Britten’s three song cycles, it simply cannot be ignored. Hence my meagre two-star rating. Justin Lavender, an intelligent, dependable and Italianate operatic tenor, was once a pupil of Peter Pears. But he is not primarily a recitalist and, although he sings here with obvious respect and affection, his performances cannot be judged in the same class as those by Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Philip Langridge, Ian Bostridge, or the original and still available recordings by Peter Pears.


Lavender’s strong rhythmic sense carves out the contours of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, but tends to make the Michelangelo Sonnets tense and over-emphatic. Tone dies quickly in a tenor not supple enough to carry the full expressive effect of Britten’s subtle inflection and phrasing of Thomas Hardy’s Winter Words. Where these songs are undercharacterised, the John Donne Sonnets sound over-rhetorical: Lavender seems to find difficulty in gauging the intense inner drama activated by their intellectual conceits, and miraculously heightened in Britten’s setting. A dry, constricted acoustic numbs Julian Milford’s alert piano playing. Hilary Finch