Britten: Songs, Vol. 1

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WORKS: Songs: Vol. 1: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne; Winter Words; The Poet’s Echo; Cabaret Songs; Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente etc
PERFORMER: Katherine Broderick (soprano), Caryl Hughes (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Tortise, James Geer, Ben Johnson, Nicky Spence, Robin Tritschler (tenor), Philip Smith (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)


This first volume of Britten’s complete original songs for voice and piano introduces a series devised, cast and beautifully accompanied by Malcolm Martineau. It’s likely to become a valuable documentary survey; and it should also provide calling cards for the cast of young singers in these performances, all from the Britten-Pears Young Artists programmes at the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival.

Already we’re presented with three world premiere recordings of works written by the 13-year-old Britten, and here performed by three very different young tenors. James Geer, a tenor with an instinct for the inflection of poetry that matches the composer’s own, offers A Dirge, an harmonically assured and verbally sensitive setting of Shelley. Britten’s Quilteresque John Suckling setting, Prithee, is winsomely projected by Andrew Tortise. And the more experienced Ben Johnson gives an aptly salonesque performance of Britten’s Wordsworth setting, Lucy.

Within the first of these two CDs, Geer returns for a performance of Britten’s 1958 Hölderlin-Fragmente, sung in a soft-grained German. And Johnson gives a deeply thoughtful reading of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. The Welsh mezzo-soprano, Caryl Hughes, is less beguiling in
the rather generalised histrionics of her Cabaret Songs.

On to the second disc; and the soprano of Katherine Broderick brings by turns a forlorn beauty and a fiery plangency to the Pushkin settings of The Poet’s Echo. Framing this fine performance is the baritone Philip Smith’s well-mannered, serious approach to the Walter de la Mare settings, Tit for Tat, and Robin Tritschler, his tenor ever more fluent and lyrically expressive, in the Thomas Hardy Winter Words.


We have a tiny and tantalising glimpse of tenor Nicky Spence in the nine-year-old Britten’s setting of Robert Burns’s O that I had ne’er been married – a touching and memorable gem within this auspicious first volume. Hilary Finch