Britten: Les illuminations; Serenade for tenor, horn and strings; Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Linn
ALBUM TITLE: Britten Song Cycles
WORKS: Les illuminations; Serenade for tenor, horn and strings; Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
PERFORMER: Toby Spence (tenor), Martin Owen (horn); Scottish Ensemble/Clio Gould
CATALOGUE NO: CKD 226
There’s no shortage of excellent recordings of Britten’s two best-known song cycles, but this latest recording has the quality and insight to stand proud with the best of them. If Toby Spence’s young-sounding tenor is not as personal as Peter Pears’s distinctive voice, heard in Britten’s Decca recordings (made in the 1960s), his tonal freshness and acutely observed articulation of the words are absorbing. Like Pears, Spence justifies the use of the tenor in Les illuminations, originally intended for soprano, thanks to the way he colours the line, paring away the sound for the ‘Interlude’ and ‘Being Beauteous’, darkening the voice for ‘Parade’. In the Serenade, he’s ably partnered by Martin Owen, though no one’s really equalled Dennis Brain on the mono first recording (Pearl).

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Clio Gould’s Scottish Ensemble is smaller than most of her recorded rivals and the lists of players for each work here suggests the odd compromise has had to be made in some of Britten’s subdivided string-writing. Yet the clarity and vitality of the playing more than make up for any lack of weight. The Frank Bridge Variations, for instance (Britten’s English Chamber Orchestra is certainly fuller-bodied), comes across with particular vividness.

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No comparable grouping of these three works exists on a single disc and, with its spacious, warm sound, it makes a dependable choice, even if Britten’s own recordings remain the benchmark. Matthew Rye