This release is one of three new recordings issued in 2013 by EMI & Virgin Classics in honour of Britten’s 100th Birthday. Ian Bostridge the, internationally acclaimed tenor whose “”attention to the text always amtches Britten’s own scrupulous word setting””, has recorded this album of songs by Benjamin Britten accompanied by Anotnio Pappano. Featured are works he has never before recorded: Seven sonnets of Michelangelo, Holderlin Fragments, Songs From the Chinese, Winter Words and Four English Songs from the last cycle Who are These Children.
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Ian Bostridge has recorded a programme of songs by Benjamin Britten as part of EMI Classics’ commemoration of the composer’s centenary. The disc features first recordings by Bostridge of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Songs from the Chinese, Winter Words and four English songs from the late cycle Who are these Children? At the piano for all but Songs from the Chinese is fellow EMI artist Antonio Pappano, with whom Bostridge has previously recorded Schubert’s Schwanengesang and Wolf lieder. In Songs from the Chinese, Bostridge collaborates with another EMI artist, the guitarist Xuefei Yang.
“My love for Britten goes way back to when I was seven. He wrote a lot of wonderful music for children,” Bostridge says. “I was a rat in Noye’s Fludde. … and then I did The Golden Vanity at school and A Ceremony of Carols. I did a lot of Britten as a child and it was in my blood. Then I left it when I was in my 20s. I discovered the songs because I came across an LP of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne in my local record library and I was completely blown away by them. That is when I discovered that Britten was a great lieder writer. … I have sung these songs for a long time. These are songs that are in my repertoire that I have recorded for the first time.
“It is interesting for me working with Tony on these songs because we have done the mainstream lieder repertoire together. We have recorded Schubert’s Schwanengesang, Wolf lieder, composers who were incredibly important to Britten. He performed them a lot in recitals with Peter Pears. In a way, he is the last composer who wrote in that tradition.
“Britten wrote the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo in 1940 during his three-year stay in America with Peter Pears, the tenor who was his partner and muse. A set of complicated poems in Renaissance Italian by Michelangelo, they are intensely erotic and homosexual in their imagery. The idea that these two men, who were already pretty unpopular for being pacifists, came back to Britain and got up on stage [they were premiered at the Wigmore Hall in 1942] and performed these songs is extraordinary. I don’t think people quite realised what was happening because the songs were in Italian.
“Britten was a great song composer in the tradition of 19th-century German lieder and French songs … Winter Words (1953), showed him at his peak. He takes eight quirky, difficult poems by Thomas Hardy that you wouldn’t immediately imagine could be set to music. There’s one about a creaking table, one about the memory of a lost loved one, another about a boy playing a violin at a railway station with a convict singing along. Britten sets English words like nobody else. Where Gerald Finzi, an English composer of roughly the same period, who also set a lot of Hardy, follows the poetry dutifully, Britten grabs it, shakes it, yet somehow stays true to it.”
Returning to text in a foreign language for the first time since the Michelangelo Sonnets, Britten set poetry by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) for his only song-cycle in German. Around the time of its composition in 1958, Britten described the Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente as ‘probably my best vocal works so far’. They were a 50th birthday present for his friend Prince Ludwig of Hesse, who had introduced Britten to Holderlin’s poetry. Britten selected six fairly short verses so the cycle is one of his most concise, yet the songs cover a broad range of moods to which he was attracted, including recollections of youth and innocence, the power of beauty to inspire love and an awareness of the inevitability of old-age and death.
Peter Pears performed folksongs and Elizabethan lute songs with the guitarist Julian Bream from the mid-1950s and Britten composed Songs from the Chinese, settings of six epigrammatic poems translated by Arthur Waley in 1957 to honour the Pears/Bream collaboration. 1957 was also the year after Britten’s concert tour to the Far East, which was a likely influence. The songs have a faintly exotic air and the writing for the guitar is sparse, possibly reflecting the spirit of the Chinese lute or pipa. The poems are bittersweet, sometimes ironic reflections on aging and mortality. Britten dedicated the songs to Prince Ludwig and his wife Princess Margaret. When Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang performed Songs from the Chinese at Wigmore Hall in July 2012, Opera Today wrote, “Bostridge’s affecting laments were a moving expression of the destruction of innocence, the final whispered “Alas!” accompanied by an ethereal rising arpeggio from the guitarist, fading weightlessly into the air.”
Who are these children? Was Britten’s penultimate song collection, composed in 1969 to verses by the pacifist Scottish poet William Soutar (1898-1943). They contain eight poems in Scots dialect celebrating childhood interspersed with four English poems influenced by William Blake and Wilfred Owen, which dwell on the horrors and pity of war. These are among the most poignant and savage anti-war songs ever written. Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano perform the four English songs.
This release is one of three new recordings to be issued by EMI/Virgin Classics in 2013 in honour of Britten’s 100th birthday. Ian Bostridge is also featured in the other two: The Rape of Lucretia with Angelika Kirchschlager, Peter Coleman-Wright and the Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble/Oliver Knussen; and the War Requiem with Anna Netrebko, Thomas Hampson and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia conducted by Antonio Pappano. Seven additional Britten releases released by EMI/Virgin Classics in 2013 are drawn from the rich EMI archives.
During the Britten centenary year, Ian Bostridge performs works by the composer at the Salzburg Festival, Royal Albert Hall, Wigmore Hall, Snape Maltings (Britten’s own Aldeburgh Festival), Cologne Philharmonie, Vienna’s Musikverein, Royal Festival Hall, Carnegie Hall, Barbican Centre, Berlin’s Philharmonie, Moscow Conservatory and Amsterdam’s Het Concertgebouw, among many others.