Britten: Holy Sonnets of John Donne

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Britten,Purcell (arr. Britten)
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Britten: Holy Sonnets of John Donne; Winter Words; Folksong arrangements; Purcell (arr. Britten): A Morning Hymn; Job’s Curse; An Evening Hymn
PERFORMER: Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano)


Many an English ex-choral scholar, tackling Britten’s Donne and Michelangelo settings, only serves to show how exceptionally forceful and, well, operatic, a tenor Peter Pears must have been when the composer wrote these cycles for him in the 1940s – and, indeed, how intense a successor Philip Langridge proved (on Naxos).

Mark Padmore is boxing rather above his weight in the Holy Sonnets, as he was with the Michelangelo songs in another interesting Britten programme. Since he tries to avoid forcing the tougher, full-pelt upper register Britten calls upon so often, in an angry and shocked response to his tour of the newly liberated concentration camps in 1945, the interpretation can seem unduly subdued, and Roger Vignoles, too, seems rather reined in for the grittier piano writing. Best is the lamentatory introspection of ‘O might those sighes and teares’.

Padmore is on happier ground with the idiosyncratic Purcell realisations, especially in a gem of an ‘Evening Hymn’, while the Hardy vignettes of Winter Words bring an ideally subtle sense of atmosphere from both singer and pianist. Vignoles catches the haunting strangeness of the introduction to ‘Midnight on the Great Western’, while Padmore’s unique sense of intimate recitative, which makes him such a fine exponent of Bach’s Evangelists, makes natural sense of ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’.


He even manages to turn to his expressive advantage the stressful cries of ‘How long’ at the end of the only sustained song in the cycle, the final ‘Before Life and After’. The five folksong arrangements, a mainly calm sequence with a knotty centrepiece in ‘The Miller of Dee’, suit his poetic directness to perfection. David Nice