Listening to Britten – Rich and rare


The Casino at Marino, Dublin by Thomas Sautelle Roberts. Photo (c) Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Rich and rare (Summer is Coming) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 4 no.6 (Moore’s Irish Melodies)) – folksong arrangement for high voice and piano (1957, Britten aged 43)

Dedication Anthony Gishford – director of Boosey & Hawkes
Text Thomas Moore
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)

Rich and rare (Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Rich and rare appears to be based on the Thomas Moore song Summer is coming, for that is the alternative name provided by the Britten Thematic Catalogue.

It is the fourth of the published songs of Moore’s Melodies, released through Boosey & Hawkes in 1960 but like the rest of the volume completed in 1957, when Britten and Pears began performing the Irish settings in public.

Eric Roseberry, writing about the Irish folksongs as part of his chapter on the settings in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, analyses the song. ‘Britten varies the interval and register of the canon in the piano part from verse to verse, with the return of the original interval of a second in right-hand piano octaves in the last verse. The textural effect is not unlike that in his setting of Hardy’s Before Life and After in Winter Words.’

Thoughts

A radiant D major is the setting for this song, as Britten’s chosen voice sings of ‘her sparkling gems and her snow white wand’. The piano operates in canon at the respectful distance of a single bar, a typical attribute of the composer’s folksong settings that seems to have begun with The Ash Grove.

As the song progresses the piano left hand becomes more forceful with this theme, and as it works towards the beginning of the last verse it reaches the instrument’s very lowest note. This is the song’s high point, the contrast at its greatest between singer and piano.

Recordings used

Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)

Britten does not specify that Rich and rare should be sung by a soprano rather than a tenor, but it seems to work better with the words – and indeed I could not find a recording with a male voice. Felicity Lott makes a compelling case for the soprano version though, her voice floating over the lower piano line as the last verse comes into view.

Regina Nathan’s version with Malcolm Martineau is similarly pure, beautifully poised from both singer and pianist, though Martineau is initially more forceful with the left hand octaves.

Spotify

Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson can be heard here, seemingly the only version of Britten’s arrangement on Spotify.

Also written in 1957: Malcolm Williamson – Symphony no.1

Next up: Dear harp of my country!

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