Benjamin Britten: The Folk Songs Soloists, Graham Johnson (piano), Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Collins 70392; three discs); 'Always the melody, the words, the voice comes first; the song's the thing...' 'The tone is just right - neither sterile reverence nor over-the-top characterisation; just musical, emotionally absorbed singing...'
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The question most often asked is this: if Britten loved this material so much, why would he want to tamper with it? To re-imagine, to recast these "simple songs", to add anything at all - even the barest of accompanying lines, the most discreet harmonisation - is that not an intrusion, a violation? Perhaps. But loving means being a part of something, truly inhabiting it. And Britten - in a variety of subtle, telling ways - did just that. More often than not, he remained as close to, as intimate to the source as he possibly could without actually touching it - the melodic lines are for the most part unadorned, while his piano (or, in select cases, orchestral) writing is, in a broader sense, his personal commentary on them. Britten, the "composer", is embodied there.

And so, in The Ash Grove or The Last Rose of Summer, the emotional subtext is carried in the piano, no longer implicit but explicit. The harmonies curdle, the ground beneath the songs shifts. The Last Rose sits uneasily on an arpeggiated keyboard texture. In I Wonder as I Wander (one of several unpublished items, recorded here for the first time), the actual song is unaccompanied, the piano commentary comprising a prelude and tiny, between-stanza interludes, their effect rather like distracted birdsong. Sally in Our Alley is enriched, not upstaged, by the piano writing. Always the melody, the words, the voice comes first; the song's the thing.

Philip Langridge and Felicity Lott share most of this material between them, with the excellent Graham Johnson a surrogate Britten at the keyboard. Both singers know how to fine-tune their characterisation (the word "interpret" is somehow too grand to be applied here), both are acutely sensitive to modulation, to word colour, to the underlying feeling of these songs. In those tenor numbers so bound up with Peter Pears, Langridge finds his own way, though I have to say that nothing can ever quite supplant Pears's deadpan delivery of The Foggy, Foggy Dew.

But, above all, Langridge and Lott know how to nurse the best of these melodies, melodies whose abiding beauty is at once inevitable and indelible: O Waly, Waly is one, The Salley Gardens is another - and you get to hear them both twice, in piano and orchestral garb. It says much for Britten's piano writing (so much conveyed from so little on the page) that the orchestral versions don't add a great deal, if anything at all. (The Salley Gardens brings in just strings to lap at Thomas Allen's embraceable legato).

Then there are the choral arrangements, each with its own distinctive Britten character - great fun. Apart, that is, from the unfinished The Bitter Withy, which would have been something more, much more. And what of that "unidentified" folk-song, so wistfully sung by Christopher Van Kampen's cello? I'm surprised Percy Grainger didn't get his hands on that one - whatever it is.

A fascinating collection, then, painstakingly researched, prepared, and documented. Try it on random-play to avoid going straight for your old favourites.


The first surprise is the discovery that folk-song was so important to Britten: his arrangements - or is it re-compositions? - generously fill three CDs. The second surprise is the breadth of the subject matter. The old familiar preoccupations are there - innocence and evil in Little Sir William or The False Knight upon the Road, and it isn't long into Disc 1 before the statutory flaxen-headed boy comes whistling prettily o'er the lea. But beside these are 10 little-known, moody Irish songs, robust nonsense like The Crocodile, and occasional hints of more powerful, dramatic things to come, as in one or two of the French items, or the eerily hypnotic accompaniment to The Miller of Dee.

The ingeniousness of Britten's adaptations can be striking. Can they sometimes be a bit too ingenious, as some of their first critics felt? I admit Early One Morning impresses me more for its cleverness than its pathos. But then you happen on something as simply telling as O Waly, Waly, or The Salley Gardens, where Britten's accompaniment is so beautifully judged that it's virtually impossible to imagine the tune without it.

The set is full of such marvellous things, and the tone of the performances is just right - neither sterile reverence nor over-the-top characterisation; just musical, emotionally absorbed singing from Felicity Lott, Philip Langridge and Thomas Allen, and accompanying that impresses without drawing attention to itself. The recordings are just right too. This is quite a treasure-chest, definitely one to dip into again and again.