Britten: Folksong arrangements; Songs from the Chinese; Canticle II

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Regis
WORKS: Folksong arrangements; Songs from the Chinese; Canticle II
PERFORMER: Paul Esswood (countertenor), James Griffett (tenor), Judith Ridgeway (piano), Timothy Walker (guitar)
CATALOGUE NO: RRC 1054 Reissue (1992)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson gives wonderful performances of two of Britten’s finest song cycles and the ardent Canticle I, consistently beautiful in vocal quality, and almost miraculous in their integration of clear, expressive diction with a smooth legato line; the piano parts are perfectly coloured and weighted by Graham Johnson. The recordings by Peter Pears and Britten himself remain essential documents of the composer’s intentions. But this bargain-price reissue, with excellent notes and good sound (although the piano is perhaps a little over-reverberant), deserves a place in every serious collection.

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As a bonus, Rolfe Johnson adds four familiar folksong settings, sung with a subtlety and sensitivity which, whenever direct comparisons come into play, knock spots off any of the competition here. However, the Britten collection on Regis, originally issued by IMP Masters, does include an enjoyable account by James Griffett and guitarist Timothy Walker of the rarely heard, pithy cycle of Songs from the Chinese; and in Canticle II, Griffett and Paul Esswood combine memorably as the voice of God over Judith Ridgeway’s radiant piano chords.

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On his musical tour of Europe, Neil Jenkins goes for sturdy projection of the texts and melodies of the original folksongs, rather than the subtler inflections of ‘art song’; the Czech guitarist Jan Žácek provides fluent support. As well as existing settings by Britten (in uncredited rearrangements), Seiber and Rodrigo, there are some brand new arrangements: Geoffrey Burgon’s straightforward versions of three English songs; Antonín Tucapský’s nostalgic treatments of five songs from his native Moravia; and Žácek’s own, often over-tricksy, renderings of songs from the British isles. Anthony Burton