Britten: Songs & Proverbs of William Blake

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake; Tit for Tat; She’s Like the Swallow; I wonder as I wander; Tom Bowling; Um Mitternacht; A Poison Tree; Evening; Morning; Night; David of the White Rock; Greensleeves; The Crocodile etc
PERFORMER: Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano)


Britten’s toughest song cycle, setting some of Blake’s most comfortless songs and proverbs as brilliantly anthologised by Peter Pears, was composed for the greatest Lieder singer of them all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

That’s a hard act to follow, especially as enshrined in a recording with the composer as chameleonic pianist; while Gerald Finley’s more restrained bass-baritonal tone perhaps wears better in the long term, he doesn’t begin to find the colours and the overall shape that Fischer-Dieskau outlined in what he certainly made seem a masterpiece.

I can’t forget John Shirley-Quirk at Aldeburgh, either, far more chilling than Finley in the horrific climax of ‘A Poison Tree’ (Britten’s earlier, chromatic-scherzo setting is given here too, but it’s not a patch on the grim monument of 1965). The dry church acoustic, too, has an uncomfortable habit of setting the voice further back the louder it becomes, and Julius Drake’s usually crystalline sound is dulled, too.

On the plus side, there’s great beauty in the longer note-values towards the end of the cycle, and the context is superb: prefaced by one of Britten’s simplest settings in the noblest of interpretations, ‘Tom Bowling’, and followed by the juvenilia revived of the De La Mare settings, Tit for Tat, where the simplicity of the vocal if not the piano line is certainly appropriate.


Not all the rarities are worth resurrecting, but the unease of ‘She’s like the swallow’ is spellbinding, and the two comic ‘encores’ robustly avoid the archness a Pears might have applied to them. David Nice