BRITTEN: Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo / Holy Sonnets of John Donne / Winter Words

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Winter Words The Holy Sonnets of John Donne SevenSonnets of Michelangelo

Britten's song cycles, whether for voice and orchestra,piano, harp or guitar, form a substantial and important part of his work. Thethree cycles on this recording span the years 1940 to 1953, an astonishinglyproductive and fertile period for Britten that saw the completion of no fewerthan eight operas (if one includes Paul Bunyan and The Little Sweep), as wellas several other by no means insubstantial scores such as the Spring Symphony,the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Saint Nicolas, The Young Person'sGuide to the Orchestra and the first and second String Quartets. The cycles arelinked inasmuch as all three were expressly written with the voice of PeterPears in mind. This specific intention, however, does not seem to have deterredother singers from rising to the challenges they present and the Michelangeloand Hardy cycles especially have become some of the most frequently performedof all twentieth-century English song cycles.

The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22, were completed inOctober 1940 during Pears and Britten's three-year stay in America, though thefirst performance was not given until September 1942 at the Wigmore Hall inLondon. In 1939 Britten had set the French symbolist poetry of Arthur Rimbaudin his Les Illuminations for high voice and strings, one of his most mature andfully achieved works to that date. It was the success of this that must haveencouraged him to meet the challenge of setting texts in languages other thanEnglish. In the Michelangelo Sonnets it could be said that he came of age as asong composer. It was the first work that Britten composed exclusively forPears and it is significant that all seven poems deal with various aspects oflove. The settings are widely and effectively contrasted around this generaltheme; the first is dominated by an obsessive figure in the piano which throwsthe tenor's broad melodic line into relief; the third song is based on one ofthose Britten ideas that appears so simple as to court banality, but insteadsucceeds in conveying a fundamental essence. As in the later Donne and Hardycycles, Britten contrives to make the final song a cumulative statement,retrospectively summing up all that has gone before using relatively simplemusical means: in the concluding Sonnet XXIV, the piano's ascending basssolemnly introduces the descending sequences of the tenor's unaccompaniedSpirto ben nato. Voice and piano are united before the end, but it is the pianothat has the last word, rounding off the cycle in a serene glow of D major.

Britten's next cycle for voice for piano, The Holy Sonnetsof John Donne, Op. 35, is markedly different in tone and overall mood. It waswritten in August 1945 in the wake of the highly successful premi?¿re of PeterGrimes, soon after Britten had returned from a tour of German concentrationcamps with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The cycle certainly seems to capturesome of the bleak intensity of that experience, but it was also a time whenBritten was increasingly preoccupied with the music of one of his favouritecomposers, Purcell, whose death was being commemorated in the year this cyclewas composed (the influence of Purcell is to be found in other works from thisperiod such as the String Quartet No.2 and, most obviously, the orchestralvariations of The Young Person's Guide). In the Donne settings the influencecan be felt primarily in the declamatory vocal style and moments of neo-Baroquerhetoric, while the debt is made explicit in the Purcellian ground-bass of thefinal song, Death, be not proud. The somewhat feverish, relentless quality ofthis cycle is relaxed only in the sixth song, the beautiful Since she whom Ilov'd, the gentle melodic contours and preponderance of warm diatonic harmonyof which contrasts sharply with the emotional urgency of the rest of the work.

The eight settings of Thomas Hardy, Winter Words, Op. 52,were written in 1953 in between labours on the operas Gloriana and The Turn ofthe Screw. While in no way sacrificing the abundance of musical invention andimagery found in the earlier cycles, the textures are generally leaner and moreeconomical with the result that the text is projected with particular clarity.Among the many riches to be found in this masterly work are the train-whistlenoises in Midnight on the Great Western which also come to symbolise the \worldunknown" that the journeying boy is travelling towards. In The Choirmaster'sBurial (or The tenor man's story), the departed master's favourite hymn-tuneMount Ephraim is woven through the texture (though characteristicallyre-harmonized in parallel triads) with the magical moment when the tenor ushersin the ghostly graveyard appearance of "the band all in white". In At theRailway Station, Upway (or The convict and boy with the violin), the piano partis imaginatively conceived as if it were a solo fiddle part with a particularlytelling use of musical irony when the handcuffed convict breaks into song atthe line "This life so free", trapped within the confines of an implacablyreiterated C major chord. The cycle concludes with one of Britten's mostimpressive songs, Before life and after. The impassively repeated triads in thepianist's left hand coupled with the bare octaves above seem, on the face ofit, to be a crudely unsophisticated device, but Britten uses this studiedsimplicity to symbolise a state of uncorrupted, primeval innocence "before thebirth of consciousness, when all went well". In this final song, Britten'sfavourite theme of the corruption of innocence by experience seems to bepowerfully and movingly distilled.

It was fairly common when Britten was working on a songcycle for various settings to be considered for possible inclusion, some ofwhich reached an advanced state of completion but ultimately came to bediscarded when the final form of the work was reached. The composition ofWinter Words yielded two such extra settings, If it's ever Spring again and TheChildren and Sir Nameless, both of which are recorded here. While Brittenclearly felt that they were not needed in the collected publication, they arenevertheless enjoyable and distinctive, as well as offering a valuable andfascinating insight into what might be termed the composer's creative refinery.

Lloyd Moore

Item number 8557201
Barcode 747313220120
Release date 01/01/2004
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Langridge, Philip
Langridge, Philip
Composers Britten, Benjamin
Britten, Benjamin
Producers West, John H.
West, John H.
Disc: 1
The Children and Sir Nameless
1 Sonnet VI: Oh my blacke Soule!
2 Sonnet XIV: Batter my heart
3 Sonnet III: O might those sighes and teares
4 Sonnet XIX: Oh, to vex me
5 Sonnet XIII: What if this present
6 Sonnet XVII: Since she whom I lov'd
7 Sonnet VII: At the round Earth's imagin'd corners
8 Sonnet I: Thou hast made me
9 Sonnet X: Death, be not proud
10 Sonetto XVI: Si come nella penna e nell'inchiostro
11 Sonetto XXXI: A che piu debb'io mai l'intensa vogl
12 Sonetto XXX: Veggio co' be' vostri occhi un dolce
13 Sonetto L: Tu sa' ch'io so, signior mie, che tu sa
14 Sonetto XXXVIII: Rendete a gli occhi miei, o fonte
15 Sonetto XXXII: S'un casto amor, s'una pieta supern
16 Sonetto XXIV: Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia
17 At Day-close in November
18 Midnight on the Great Western
19 Wagtail and Baby
20 The Little Old Table
21 The Choirmaster's Burial
22 Proud Songsters
23 At the Railway Station, Upway
24 Before Life and After
25 If it's ever Spring again
26 The Children and Sir Nameless
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