Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Songs of innocence & experience


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I'll be bargaining with the devil for my Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recordings as I make my way into the next life, but I'll give up the one of Benjamin Britten's Songs and Proverbs of William Blake if I get to keep the new recording of the cycle by Gerald Finley and Julius Drake (Hyperion). Fischer-Dieskau, with Britten at the piano, made their recording of the cycle shortly after giving the 1965 Aldeburgh Festival premiere. But essential as that recording is, the great German baritone's English never quite cut to the core of Blake's uncompromising texts.

Finley's native English crosses that hurdle easily, but what makes this set a consistent marvel is the seemingly infinite imagination with which he can characterize a song (in any language, as his other great recordings with the unbeatable musical partnership of Julius Drake make clear). The consuming darkness of Blake's vision coupled with the simple fact that these seven poems and the terse proverbs that precede them unfold in a single, uninterrupted musical stream only increase the daunting task of giving the songs an individual profile. Finley and Drake do just that, with the seeming artlessness that is the summit of the songmakers' art.

The poisoned apple that lurks – like the one in the Eden story – at the pivot-point of this cycle, in "A Poison Tree," is the perfect symbol of the trembling innocence and mostly bitter experience at the core of Blake's "prophecy." Finley's chilling story of the wrath that infuses the fruit that kills the foe because it shone – and "he knew that it was mine" – in five minutes tells a twisting tale that foreshadows its death-dealing climax without once flinching.

Later in the disc, the pair's performance of a setting of the same text by Britten when he was in his early 20s tells another tale, of the composer's gift and how he grew it.

In "The Fly," the off-kilter music for piano and voice that so vividly evokes the flight of a fly builds, over the song's two-minute span, to the poet's crazed recognition, which Britten repeats: "For I dance/ and drink and sing:/ Till some blind hand/ Shall brush my wing." Then the prophecy: "If thought is life/ And strength and breath/ And the want/ Of thought is death;/ Then am I/ A happy fly/ if I live,/ Or if I die."

Finley and Drake make these instants Blakean "eternities in an hour." They stretch the music taut between the poles of the opening "London": "[I] mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe," and "Every Night and every Morn," in which some to misery are born, and some to sweet delight. And it holds.

On either side of this unsparing cycle are sets of Britten's wondrous folk-song arrangements, the five songs of Tit for Tat, and some unforgettable miscellaneous gems. "I wonder as I wander" and "Greensleeves" hold an aching beauty in Finley's direct, unfussy performances of them. Elsewhere, things are loftier or in higher spirits. The moment at the end of the second verse of "Tom Bowling," when on the repeat of "for Tom is gone aloft," Finley slips effortlessly into head voice, might wring a sudden tear. And if "The Deaf Woman's Courtship," which Britten wrote in 1952 for Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears to sing as a comic duet, and is the equivalent of a hilarious bar story in a minute and a half, is not an LOL moment for you, I'm sorry. Finley sings both parts, in two unbelievably distinct and distinctly unbaritonal voices, and hilarity prevails. Without it, and the equally outrageous "Bird Scarer's Song" that ends the disc with a decidedly unsung "Ha! Ha!," the CD just might be unbearable.

I've waited years for this opportunity to put in a plug for a DVD I stumbled on in San Francisco two years ago. If, like me, you think Britten's late, made-for-TV opera Owen Wingrave is underrated, get the DVD of the Margaret Williams movie version of it (Kultur). Finley's Owen is phenomenal, and the DVD also includes the invaluable Britten documentary The Hidden Heart.

Three times now, recordings of the Britten string quartets have struck me as "the last word" on them. I finally just had to submit to the power of the Belcea Quartet's CDs of the complete Britten quartet music. But just now the rapidly emerging Elias Quartet has done one better with its ravishing accounts of the Second and Third Quartets and the Three Divertimenti (Sonimage).

These vibrant young musicians bow to no one in their penetration of this music and its architecture, but what they offer alongside the intensity and profundity of it all is its intrinsic sensuality. They play Britten with unashamed, transfixing beauty.

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