, September 2011
It is great to have all the Scottish songs by Benjamin Britten on one disc. However it is not only the completeness that is important. Most of the works on this CD have been relatively rarely recorded. At present the Arkiv catalogue lists only three other versions of The Birthday Hansel and five versions of Who are these Children? I cannot find a reference to the ‘Four Burns Songs’. So it is a welcome addition. Add to this, the committed and often moving performances from all three soloists and one has a ‘must-have’ CD for all Britten enthusiasts.
A Birthday Hansel was composed in 1975 to celebrate Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s seventy-fifth birthday. It was one of the composer’s last works. The song-cycle contained seven songs in the Scottish dialect culled from the collected poems of Robert (‘Rabbie’) Burns. Out of interest, the word ‘Hansel’ means a gift that is given to someone before the start of a new enterprise, or it can mean a welcome gift.
Britten does not utilise ‘existing’ folksongs, nor does he write pastiche tunes. What he has achieved is a synthesis of the distinguishing features of Scottish folk and dance music and applies it to Burn’s poems. In the present recording, Mark Wilde varies the ‘richness’ or ‘depth’ of the dialect which I think is a good plan. Unremitting ‘Harry Lauder’ would be difficult to stomach. The harp part is much more integral to the work than mere accompaniment: the Britten website notes that it employs ‘a wide range of devices and effects to colourful effect as well as providing the necessary transitions from song to song.’ It is this equilibrium between singer and instrumentalist that makes A Birthday Hansel so effective. It is convincingly performed by Mark Wilde and Lucy Wakeford.
After Britten’s death, the composer Colin Matthews made an arrangement for tenor and piano of four of the songs from A Birthday Hansel. It was published as Four Burns Songs. If I am honest, I prefer these settings to the original!
Finally, Chris Ball has written in the sleeve notes that Britten used an ‘old’ edition of Burns’ poems which had a degree of anglicising of the ‘Lallans Scots’ dialect. He states that in A Birthday Hansel these words have not been corrected: however in the ‘Four Burns Songs’ the text has been corrected to follow the version in ‘The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns Bi-Centenary Edition (1993)’.
The liner-notes gives the listener a good clue for approaching Who are these children?: it is best to regard this difficult song-cycle as ‘two works in one’: it is a balance between the ‘bairn’s’ songs and those of the ‘world of war and pain’. In fact there are eight songs that explore ‘the happier, more innocent aspects of childhood’ and the remaining four examine ‘the plight of children in the context of violence and war’. William Soutar is one of the great writers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance—alongside Hugh MacDiarmid. I accept that some of his political views may not appeal to everyone: neither will his pacifism. However, to be fair to Soutar, he did serve in the Royal Navy during the First World War, so at least he has experience of some of the subjects he explores in his poetry.
Yet the song-cycle itself, I find a little harder to come to terms with. I find that it lacks coherence. Some of the ‘songs’ are very short—one is just 34 seconds. Perhaps it is the mixing of the violence and innocence that I find ‘too near the bone’?
I have listened to this a number of times in this version and also in Daniel Norman’s recording and long felt that it is a difficult work to bring off. However I believe that Mark Wilde approaches the ‘dialect’ issue well. It is a fine performance of an often morbid and always challenging piece.
The present recording includes three additional poems from the cycle that were not used in the final arrangement. Three of the shorter dialect songs were set—‘Dawtie’s Devotion’, ‘The Gully’ and ‘Tradition’. Britten wished these settings to be performed as separate songs and insisted that they were not to be incorporated into the song-cycle.
Finally, Naxos feature all the ‘Scottish folksongs’, including the beautiful ‘Ca’ the Yowes’. However the lovely ‘O Can ye sew cushions?’ and the charming ‘Come you not from Newcastle’ should not be missed. One last treat is the attractive Cradle Song (Sleep, my darling, sleep) by Louis MacNeice who squeezes into this collection as an Ulster-Scot.
The sound quality is good, the singing is effective and as I have noted above Mark Wilde does not overdo the ‘local colour’. Piano and harp both contribute to the overall value of this excellent and often moving CD.