Tuesday 23 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: Britten Song Cycles

Yesterday's young artists theme continued this afternoon at Aldeburgh church with the second in a pair of programmes comprised entirely of song settings by Britten. The four singers, each of whom took a set of songs in turn, were all alumni of the Britten-Pears programme.

Given they were probably giving their first nationally broadcast solo recitals, some nerves were understandably on show. That said, for the most part I think the problems lay more with the works which are not, in my view, among Britten's greatest compositions. Throughout, Malcolm Martineau, veteran of many an Edinburgh festival, provided solid accompaniment at the piano.

First up was baritone Philip Smith singing a collection entitled Tit for Tat (that they date originally 1931, when the composer was just 18, probably explains the lack of an opus number). He had a nice clean voice and good diction, with every word being clear (something all to often not the case).

He was followed by soprano Katherine Broderick, who is a little hard to judge properly for a couple of reasons. First, she has a very powerful voice indeed, one that would have no trouble filling the Coliseum; as such, sitting in the second row, it was overwhelming. This was exacerbated by the chosen settings, The Poets Echo, op.76 (words by Pushkin) which too often required loud piercing notes. That said, she appears to be one to watch, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear her in Wagner in a few years time.

After the interval came tenor Ben Johnson singing Holy Sonnets of John Donne, op.35. Sadly, he seemed to be having trouble with his voice, tiring rather quickly as the cycle went on; it was a shame to have caught him on what appeared to be an off day. Donne's poetry, in my view, is the finest of any of the settings in the programme. Certainly, it can be set to superb effect: witness John Adams in his recent opera Dr Atomic (review of ENO production), who used the 14th, which Britten also set. Gerald Finley's repetition of "Batter my heart, three-person'd God" was devastating. Here's the thing though: Donne's language is quite dense and there's so much in each poem that the way Britten just rushes through so many means they can't be properly appreciated. Contrast with Adams who dwelled on one poem, allowing its full impact to be felt.

Finally came a second tenor, Nicky Spence. He had a good voice, sadly he too was hobbled by the poems he was trying to sing: Who are these children, op.84. This time the problem was that a large proportion of these twelve poems, by William Soutar, feature a lot of Scotch words and phrases. To work they need to done in a good Scottish accent, and while he tried very hard, almost always it just didn't sound quite right. A good dialect coach was clearly needed. Then again, given the songs were written for Pears to perform, I dread to think how silly that performance must have sounded.

In many cases then, it would have been interesting to hear the singers in other repertoire; however, Broderick seems to be the one to watch.


Anonymous said...

Nicky Spence is Scottish, born and bred and has a great Scottish accent when speaking and singing.

Tam Pollard said...

While I'm happy to take your word for it, I honestly have to say he didn't sound it from his singing voice. Of course, being Scottish and getting the Scotch words and phrases sounding right in song aren't the same thing.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right and there's a large debate as to whether Scots Song should be sung in Scots dialect or a Scottish Accent... both of which are very different.

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