Listening to Britten – The last rose of summer


Roses by Frederick Appleyard. (c) The artist’s estate. Photo (c) Laing Art Gallery

The last rose of summer (Groves of Blarney) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 4 no.9 (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 4′

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)

The last rose of summer (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)

The last rose of summer (Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

The ninth of Britten’s ten Irish folksong settings is described by Eric Roseberry as ‘treated in the manner of a passionately nostalgic aria accompanied by richly strumming chords, and the second verse is freely ornamented in the voice part, giving quasi-baroque rein to Pears’s expressive virtuosity.

Thoughts

This is a magical song, and there are bound to be tears before it ends, for it is a much more sentimental cousin of In The Mid Hour of Night, one of the earlier settings in this set of Irish folksongs.

It is a sad song, particularly at the end of the second verse, ‘Where thy mates of the garden lie senseless and dead’. It is almost impossible not to see the parallels with war here, particularly in the emphasis Britten places on this text, the singer alone and free to hold back as much as they want to.

Britten’s piano part is also key, the softly spread chords prompting the melody but staying very much in its awe. The tune is the star here – and as such it is a prime candidate for an encore piece.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)

Pears and Britten are in their absolute element here. Theirs is a daringly slow tempo, but the tenor’s performance brings a tear to the eye when he reaches the end of the second verse in particular.

No-one, not even Felicity Lott, can hold a candle to it, though she also sings with great control – and Graham Johnson cleverly articulates the syncopation of the final verse.

Spotify

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten are here. Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson can be heard here. Meanwhile a more traditional version is sung by John McDermott here.

Also written in 1957: Poulenc – Dialogues des Carmelites

Next up: O the sight entrancing

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