Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; Les Illuminations; Nocturne John Mark Ainsley (tenor), David Pyatt (horn), Britten Sinfonia / Nicholas Cleobury (EMI Eminence 565899-2)

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The Independent Culture
The poetry of sleep and dreams, the music of sleep and dreams. Once heard, forever inseparable. In another time. another place, we might almost be asking which came first. Peter Pears came first, of course, but could it be that we can at last hear, really hear other singers in these matchless settings? John Mark Ainsley is more than ready for them. Especially Nocturne. Something happens here. An awareness, an engagement at some deeper level. The voice would actually seem to have been caught in that elusive place somewhere between sleep and dreams. Subtle shifts of timbre and manner are assumed, not signalled, with wonderful inevitability. Britten helps, of course, each of his seven obbligato instruments serving as inspirational colour codings, one magic casement opening on to another, and another. Nicholas Cleobury's Britten Sinfonia do a fine job, starting so atmospherically (in rarified pianopianissimo) as to convey the weird sensation of dropping off whilst wide awake. There's a thing. Ainsley's true, centred sound is a source of great refinement.

Paradoxically, the decadence of Les Illuminations is all in the refinement, the purity and liquidity of his delivery. He gives notice of it with that sensuous glissando - an illicit sigh of pleasure - on the words "et je danse" at the close of "Strophe (Phrase)". The erotic charge of "Antique" is beautifully understated. So, what of the Serenade - the key issue here? It's good, very good, but (and, yes, you knew there was going to be a "but" in there somewhere) I am wondering about the level of characterisation in one or two of the settings. It's so easy here to cross that fine line into over-painting text, and I appreciate Ainsley's respect in that regard. Let the words do the speaking. Absolutely.

Even so, Charles Cotton's "monstrous elephant" and "mighty Polypheme" could surely have come up a little, and I don't quite get the change of atmosphere into the magical final stanza: "And now on benches all are sat." Likewise the Keats Sonnet - beautifully, transportingly, sung, but - and I had sworn to myself that I wouldn't make comparisons with Pears - without the ache, the extraordinary charge that can take you to the very heart of it.

For the rest, Tennyson's "Nocturne" is bugle-bright and elfin-light, Blake's "Elegy" wonderfully concentrated, and Jonson's "Hymn" is indeed "chaste and fair", though I personally don't care for the aspirated runs, no matter how much they perk up the rhythm. David Pyatt's horn-playing is spectacularly good: magical, deft, haunting and disturbing in the hallucinatory "stopped" effects of the Blake, though perhaps without that last degree of abandon which Barry Tuckwell in particular brings to the climactic stanza of "Dirge", properly rearing his ugly head at "Brig o'Dread". An accomplished disc, none the less. Rather more so in the Nocturne. From the buyer's point of view, Benjamin Britten's three finest orchestral song-cycles make an obvious CD-age compilation (just under 75 minutes). But it's a brave singer who will tackle them all - not just because of the technical demands. The expressive worlds of the three cycles are utterly different, yet ambiguity is central to each: dark emotions stir, but surface only rarely - as in the eerie "Elegy" ("O Rose, thou art sick") from the Serenade, or the frankly Mahlerian "When most I wink" that ends the Nocturne.

Technically, John Mark Ainsley is equal to the demands of all three cycles. Tone is true in every register, phrasing elegant and natural, and his sense of pitch is exceptional - how often do you hear note after note placed as exactly as this? Not in Peter Pears's classic recordings, certainly. Ainsley is most effective in the Serenade, and well partnered by David Pyatt, who sets the twilight mood very effectively in the opening solo "Prologue". Pears's 1944 recording with Dennis Brain isn't eclipsed, but Ainsley's singing has a depth of involvement that I don't find in the other two pieces. For all the accomplishment, there's something just a little matter-of-fact about his Les Illuminations. And Nocturne exemplifies the problem. Everything is correct, and there's some impressive solo playing - and how interesting to hear "Entinctured with a twine of leaves", taken (as Britten asks) as a real slow waltz. But where are the shadows and insinuations? Perhaps the lucidly clear recording adds to the impression - everything seems too well lit. As the Owen poem in the Nocturne says, "No ghost looms out of the stillness" - and what are these works, if not haunted?