Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Gay composers get their due


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New CDs of songs by Britten and Ravel remind us why they were the two greatest gay composers of the last century. Without having to pull a Michael Jackson, Britten just keeps making deeper inroads into our minds, opera-house seats and downloads, as Ravel emerges the greatest 20th-century composer no one remembers whenever such foolish lists are made. Despite having written some of the most refined and challenging music for orchestra, voice and piano ever, Ravel never wrote a symphony or a sonata, and had the nerve to be recognizably gay, so was consigned to the ranks of the good but not great. But I rant.

The problem with Britten song recordings has always been that Britten and his life partner Peter Pears got there first, with recordings that were never going to be surpassed. Against those odds, other singers have made important Britten recordings by simply doing it anyway, but in my experience no one to date has made a CD that so recalls Britten-Pears while still being its own exquisite thing than Mark Padmore's Britten: Before Life and After with Roger Vignoles, as good a song pianist as walks among us (Harmonia Mundi USA).

I was never one of them, but I understand people who say they "got" Pears' artistry but just couldn't "do" the voice, to which the words "pressed duck" were so regularly applied (as if that were funny, somehow kind or true). So now along comes Padmore, who seems incapable of making an un-beautiful sound, with a recital of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, three of Britten's realizations of Purcell songs, Winter Words, and five of the Britten folk-song arrangements that are not from the half-dozen you usually hear. It's shocking how Pears-like Padmore can sound while, yes, singing yet more beautifully and putting his very own stamp on this stunning material.

If you can listen dry-eyed through even the single line, "A time there was" (words that came to be so strongly associated with the Britten-Pears living legend that they were used as the title of a famous documentary about the pair) at the beginning of the song from Winter Words that gives the CD its title, I'm just sorry. Please understand that we're in a difficult astrological transit. I had forgotten that Britten had made an arrangement of "I Wonder as I Wander," a "folk song" with enormous personal resonances for me, until Padmore and Vignoles sent me around the moon with their spare, vaulting performance.

All I could think as I listened to Padmore's Donne Sonnets t

he first time around was what poor vocal music John Adams' setting of Donne's "Batter My Heart," the big tune from Doctor Atomic, is. What has made it a sensation, so far at least, has been the literally staggeringly great performance it has gotten from its only exponent to date, Gerald Finley. He gives yet another of his astoundingly perfect performances in Songs by Ravel with the only other song pianist at Vignoles' level today, Julius Drake (Hyperion).

Listen to Finley sing the three songs of Don Quichotte a Dulcinee, and hear a character as vividly drawn, by both Ravel and Finley, in seven minutes as Cervantes does in 600 pages. So great are the demands it makes on singer and pianist that I've heard it live only once, but that was nowhere near as live as this studio recording from a year ago. It was to have been music sung by the great Feodor Chaliapin for a Georg Pabst film had Ravel not missed the tight deadline, but here it's as cinematic as music gets.

The wonder of Ravel's songs is the range of genres, national and otherwise, that they take on, master, then make inimitably their own. It's utter wizardry in song that nevertheless requires that sense of effortlessness that is at the souffle coeur of French music. The "Greek," "Hebrew," "Italian," and "Scottish" songs could never have come into being without their actual antecedents, but Ravel makes all of them his own, and Finley seems nearly as vital a co-creator in bringing them to life. The "Chanson ecossaise," set to English words, is as hauntingly affecting as any of the Britten "folk songs."

It's an irony of the quintessentially French type that the ultra-sophisticated Ravel, the J.M. Barrie of his side of the channel, reached a summit with his children's opera L'Enfant et les Sortileges. There's never been a better recording of it than the live concert from September 2008 by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle with a top-drawer cast including Magdalena Kozena and Jose van Dam (EMI Classics), paired with Ravel's Ma Mere l'Oye (Mother Goose), no less.

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