Britten on Record: English songs by Bridge, Butterworth, Moeran, Warlock, Ireland and Lennox Berkeley (Decca)
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Studio recording: Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, September and October 1955
Bridge – Go not, happy day (Alfred Tennyson); Love went a-riding (Mary E Coleridge)
Butterworth – Is my team ploughing? (Alfred Edward Housman)
Moeran – In Youth is Pleasure (Robert Wever)
Warlock – Yarmouth Fair (Norfolk folksong)
Ireland – I have twelve oxen (Anon)
Berkeley – How love came in (Robert Herrick)
Background and Critical Reception
As Philip Reed writes in his booklet notes to the recent Decca release of Britten: The Performer, ‘Britten’s sense of responsibility towards British music of his own time (as well as the recent past) shone out in much of the Aldeburgh Festival programming’. Reed also talks of how, in the English song repertoire they committed to disc, ‘Pears and Britten offer readings every bit as considered as their memorable Lieder interpretations’.
As this collection of songs indicates, they had their favourites of each composer – though performing the music of Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge, would have been of special relevance. The collection includes Britten’s only recordings of the music of Moeran, Warlock and Berkeley. Moeran was a composer he met and respected, bonding over a shared love of folk song, while Lennox Berkeley became a firm friend.
The pair had a deep respect for some of the songs of John Ireland, Britten’s teacher at the Royal College of Music noting his joy at their performances on several occasions. The wonderful John Ireland Companion, issued in the composer’s centenary year by Boydell and edited by Lewis Foreman, publishes a letter written to Pears after a concert in 1947. In it, Ireland praises his ‘great expansiveness and sympathy’. He declares that ‘I can find no words adequate to express gratitude and appreciation of your wonderful performance’.
These small but meaningful songs are a delight, the sense of enjoyment on both Pears and Britten’s part clear for all to hear. Go not, happy day is an especial pleasure, one of Bridge’s most ardent songs beginning with tumbling figuration in the piano part. This is played by Britten with impeccable attention to the detail as well as with an ear on the overall effect. It’s quite fast but legible, and Pears – singing with a light indulgence – hits a beautiful top ‘A’ at the end.
Love went a-riding is more strident and march like, Pears’ voice proudly sat above the big piano part. Butterworth’s Is my team ploughing?, one of the songs from A Shropshire Lad, is more remote and thoughtful, Britten’s soft piano chords illuminating the quieter and more ruminative moments from the singer.
In youth is pleasure is a sombre setting, complemented by some sparkling ornamentation in the right hand from Britten, lighting up the song’s serious tone. Yarmouth Fair is the complete opposite, a bright, spring-like song that is invigorating here. I have twelve oxen is one of Ireland’s more carefree utterances, and Pears sings it with lyrical warmth. Finally Berkeley’s sonnet setting How love came in is brief but thoughtful.
These songs make an ideal companion to Britten and Pears’ recordings of the folk song arrangements.
Each of these recordings can be heard on a release made available by Heritage, available on Spotify here.
Also recorded in 1955: Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue (Morton Gould (piano), Symphony Orchestra / Leopold Stokowski)
Next up: Oldham – Three Chinese Lyrics