, May 2005
"It was the late, lamented Luciano Berio that claimed there must be something dubious about a country without folk music, but it could equally have been Benjamin Britten. Of all British composers there is none other who evokes such a close association with the native idiom or such intimate relationship with a sense of place. One of the first things that strikes you is just how wide Brittens interest in folk material was, drawn as it was from all over the British Isles.
To better accommodate the six volumes on 2CDs from the 3CDs they originally occupied on their Collins Classics release, Naxos have omitted some other more minor material and reordered the tracks. For anyone wishing to take the sets in order a certain amount of track and disc shuffling must ensue, but this is far from essential to the overall enjoyment. Many individual songs may well be familiar to listeners, as they were to me, but this was my first encounter with the sets as a whole. It has been a richly rewarding experience.
All the artists recorded here have a long association with Brittens music. Langridges stage assumptions of Brittens key tenor roles have been among the glories of the opera world for many years. If his song recital activity has not received quite the same adulation, it is for no want of quality or insight as previous Naxos reissues have surely proven.
The point has been made before about the similarity in some respects between Langridges voice and that of Peter Pears, for whom so much of Brittens music was written. Both bring a lively imagination to the word pointing of individual songs, coupled with excellent diction and superb intonation. But it is the intimacy and affection within the performances, matching that felt by Britten for the material in the first place, that proves infectious here. Listen to the playfulness in The Crocodile (CD1, track 10) or the beautifully rapt rendition of ‘The Salley Gardens’ (CD 1, track 1), to give but two examples.
If Langridge carries the lion’s share of material, the contribution of Dame Felicity Lott is no less important. It is probably the closest thing to heresy in some quarters to admit this, but I have not always been totally convinced by her stage portrayals. But again it was the intimacy of tone that drew me in here. Some songs are more artful, others more earthy and characterful.
Given Dame Felicity’s prowess with French it is appropriate that she take the bulk of the Volume 2 songs, with Britten’s accompaniments being suitably Gallic in flavour. Langridge’s contributions, here as elsewhere, provide a piquant counterpoint.
The few duets work wonderfully: ‘The deaf woman’s courtship’ proving a particular highlight of interplay. Throughout Graham Johnson proves a sensitive accompanist, crisp, articulate though not overly forward. The final set is of interest for the employment of guitar accompaniment, which Carlos Bonell takes well. However, there is competition in the pairing of Pears and Julian Bream (BMG-RCA). The present collection ends most hauntingly with a German folk-song, and a wordless setting given to cello and piano. Pointing to a new direction in Britten’s concern with folk material, it is interesting to ponder where this would have taken him.
With succinct yet insightful notes, texts (though hardly needed due to the superb diction of both singers), and translations of the French, Naxos supports an excellent release admirably. Anyone wanting Britten’s folk-song arrangements can safely acquire this pleasurable set without fear of disappointment."