Britten: Complete Folksong Arrangements

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: Complete Folksong Arrangements
PERFORMER: Felicity Lott (soprano), Philip Langridge (tenor),Thomas Allen (baritone), Carlos Bonell (guitar), Osian Ellis (harp),Christopher van Kampen (cello),Graham Johnson (piano); WenhastonBoys Choir/Christopher Barnett, David Owen Norris (piano); BBCSingers/Sim
CATALOGUE NO: 70392 DDD
Over three hours of folksong settings might seem too much of a good thing, even for regular frequenters of Cecil Sharp House, but unlike the cosy, romanticised versions of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Moeran and others, Britten’s folksongs, like Grainger’s before him, are as much original compositions as arrangements. In their own utterly perfect way they are as representative of his genius as anything else he wrote. His accompaniments don’t simply provide redundant support for the given melodies, tautologically telling us what is in the tunes already: they cajole, comment, contradict, nag; above all they recreate the melodies in Britten’s own troubled image.

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Even to Brittenophiles this collection will spring some pleasant surprises.Here is every surviving example of Britten the arranger’s art: not only the familiar five volumes of British, Irish and French folksongs published between 1943 and 1961 for voice and piano, but the set for voice and guitar of 1961 and the pithier, darker set for voice and harp of 1976 (the last year of his life). Also included are the various orchestral versions Britten made of some of these and a wealth of material which, inexplicably, still remains unpublished, not least of which is a magical setting of ‘The Bitter Withy’ for tenor, boys choir and piano, which was tragically aborted midway and is worth the price of these CDs alone.

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If Felicity Lott, Philip Langridge and Thomas Allen can’t quite match Peter Pears’s unique range of colour and wry humour, even with the sterling and authoritative support provided by Steuart Bedford, Osian Ellis and Graham Johnson, they are as finely attuned and varied in response to this absorbing, challenging music as one could today reasonably hope for. Antony Bye