Flax and Fire – Songs of Devotion
Songs by Britten, Wolf, Liszt, R Schumann and WD Browne
Stuart Jackson (tenor), Jocelyn Freeman (piano)
Orchid Classics ORC100139 60:12 mins
There are plenty of songs of devotion out there, but this recital collects four attractive and varied sets – Britten, Wolf, Liszt, Robert Schumann. It closes with the lovely ‘To Gratiana dancing and singing’ by World War I composer, William Denis Browne, a perfect mirror to the opening song, the similarly historically-inspired Britten-Purcell realisation ‘Man is for the woman made’. The whole is balanced around the three hefty Liszt-Petrarch sonnet settings.
There is much to admire in Stuart Jackson’s bright, energetic sound, but I wanted more inwardness and mystery, better to match Jocelyn Freeman’s magically veiled, half-pedalled piano. Jackson is at his best in the extrovert English songs, sounding thrilling and virile. He’s superbly responsive to Britten’s awkward, elusive tenderness in Canticle I. Freeman brings a full range of colours to her touch, as well as a sensitive response to harmony and terrific control of texture.
Still more riskiness and expressive breadth in the Lieder would lift this recital to the next level. The selection of songs is inspired, but Wolf and Schumann need more than beauty and precision – they need to be intimate, louche, sarcastic, humorous, bitter and vulnerable, all conveyed in timbre and text.
Jackson’s warm, earnest approach suits the guileless Liszt songs. He also responds to their more operatic scale, mostly rising to their fearsome technical demands with an open, powerful sound. Freeman, in this somewhat overwritten music, is spot on, maintaining momentum and flow. The recording quality is mostly fine, the piano surrounding Jackson’s sound like an embrace.