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Benjamin Britten folksong arrangements -
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'... this release is worth several times it's weight in gold.'

Benjamin Britten Folksong Arrangements. © 2008 Melba Recordings

Since I last heard Britten's folksong arrangements, their pleasing economy, pristine shapeliness and deceptive originality has been hidden away, long neglected, in my mental archives. How stimulating to hear them again; the very Englishness of The Ash Grove, The Minstrel Boy, Tom Bowling and The Salley Gardens. For all but the most jaded soul these twenty-four settings must surely trigger mega-levels of listening satisfaction.

Best of all, Melba's soloist, tenor Steve Davislim and composer/accompanist Simone Young revive the era of bygone country life Britten has evoked with such unerring precision.

Listen -- O Waly Waly
(track 11, 0:00-0:41) © 2008 Melba Recordings

In 1941 Britten expressed this perfectly in an article (reprinted 2003 in Paul Kildea's Britten on Music -- Oxford University Press). He wrote: 'The quiet, uneventful charm of the atmosphere' created by a folksong, (bears) similarities in its effects to the very source which inspired much of it; the English countryside. Lacking the dramatic variation or surprise one might encounter in rural Europe, the English landscape seduces us in gentle stages. English folksongs, wrote Britten, 'creep into the affections rather than take them by storm'.

Together, composer-pianist Britten and partner, tenor Peter Pears, brought an unparalleled synergy to these songs (Decca -- British Music Collection) and their recording/s of much the same music are widely regarded as 'benchmark' performances.

In recent years a more recent, recommendable alternative has featured tenor Philip Langridge and soprano Dame Felicity Lott with accompanist Graham Johnson and (briefly) guitarist Carlos Bonell and Christopher van Kampen; cello (Naxos : English Song Series 10 / 8.557220-21).

On Hyperion's budget label -- Helios -- tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson with Graham Johnson are heard in The Salley Gardens, The trees they grow so high, Little Sir William and O Waly, Waly, together with the 7 Sonnets of Michaelangelo, Op 22 and the Winter Words' song cycle, Op 52.

Others turn up in Hyperion's wider two-disc set titled Britten: The Folksong Arrangements, with sopranos Lorna Anderson and Regina Nathan, tenor Jamie MacDougall and pianist Malcolm Martineau.

Chandos offers a mix of folksongs in their Down By the Salley Gardens with baritone Benjamin Luxon and accompanist David Willison. In the 1960s and 70s Luxon became noted for his roles in Britten operas: Albert Herring, The Rape of Lucretia and the TV opera Owen Wingrave.

Other recordings lurk in forgotten corners of the catalogue, ie 'Prairie Home Companion' regular, Minnesota soprano Maria Jette with pianist Judith Kogan generously offer Britten: 24 Folk Songs of the British Isles on Centaur. In the 2007-08 Sacramento Opera season Jette appeared as Miss Jessel in Britten's 1954 opera The Turn of the Screw ( libretto by Myfanwy Piper).

But it's Melba Recordings' release (complete with all lyrics) that has now nosed into the upper echelon of Britten folksong recordings.

The six volumes of folksongs were published between the early years of the war and 1961 -- Vol 1 (1943), Vol 2 (1946), Vol 3 (1947), Vol 4 (1960), Vol 5 and Vol 6 (1961). Songs performed but unpublished in Britten's lifetime were subsequently brought to light in a collection titled Tom Bowling and Other Song Arrangements (2001).

Davislim's recital spans the volumes from The Salley Gardens (Vol 1) to The Brisk Young Widow (Vol 5) and Greensleeves (Tom Bowling and Other Song Arrangements), though Greensleeves dates from 1940-41.

His first dozen songs represent collections of the 1940s whereas the latter (13-24) are from Vols 4 and 5 -- the exception: the two titles published in 2001.

The Salley Gardens to words by W B Yeats (1889) was initially set to a traditional tune; Maids of the Mourne Shore. Britten dedicated it to Australian-born singer Clytie Mundy and here it becomes track No 1.

Listen -- The Salley Gardens
(track 1, 0:40-1:19) © 2008 Melba Recordings

Baritone and actor Alfred Drake (1914-92) became a Mundy student and Pears had occasional studies with him during the Pears/Britten American years: 1939-42.

The grim ballad Little Sir William was somewhat bowdlerized in publication to offset suggestions of anti-semitism in its text. Artist and poet Matthew Paris (c1217-1259) has a Latin fragment of this ballad in his 'Chronicle'. There is a tale that in 1255 a boy was kidnapped by Jews, and crucified. His body was found in a well, and many Jews were summarily convicted and hanged for the crime.

A reworking of the Child Ballad No 181 laments the slaying of James Stewart, Earl of Murray (or Moray) by the Earl of Huntly, in 1592.

Tragedy is set aside in The Trees they grow so high, a rural Somerset ditty and title of an 'out of character' album by crossover/pop soprano Sarah Brightman -- her 19 Britten folksongs with Geoffrey Parsons (EMI) was originally released in 1988 as The Trees, reissued with the alternate title Early in the Morning in 1995, then re-released in 1998 under its current title.

Listen -- The Trees they grow so high
(track 1, 0:00-0:59) © 2008 Melba Recordings

Each song has its own intriguing and frequently colourful origins and the revival of many was the work of Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), instigator of the folklore revival in England in the early 20th century. Numerous traditional dances and music owe their continuing existence to his work in collecting, recording and publishing them. His associate, Maud Karpeles (1885-1976) also had a big part to play.

At the same time Vaughan Williams explored English folk songs, which were fast becoming extinct. He travelled the countryside, transcribing and preserving many himself. VW did much to raise appreciation of traditional English folk song and melody and in later life he served as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS).

The Minstrel Boy is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air.

Moore wrote The Last Rose of Summer (1805) while at Jenkinstown Park in County Kilkenny, Ireland. Sir John Stevenson (1761-1833) set the poem to its widely-known melody, published in Moore's collected Irish Melodies (1807-34).

Through The Ash Grove ('Llwyn Onn') Davislim and Young follow the gentle duality of Britten's sparing accompaniment and the sylvan lyrics; 'Yn Nyffryn Llwyn Onn draw' ('Down yonder green valley') to perfection.

Listen -- The Ash Grove
(track 5, 2:02-2:43) © 2008 Melba Recordings

This ancient harp melody was first published without words by Edward Jones ('The King's Harpist') in The Bardic Museums in 1802.

Britten's keyboard evocation of the harp is beautifully realized in Irish laureate Moore's 'Dear harp of my country', a subtly restrained expression of Irish destiny and determinism.

Most of these lyrics tell tales of history and moral intrigue worthy of Chaucer -- whether the masquerading of Sweet Polly Oliver, the solitary lot felt by The Miller of Dee, or the Quixotic folly of The Brisk Young Widow's would-be lover.

Sleeve note writer David Pear cautions against over-romanticizing the songs. He writes: '... folksongs are rarely happy. They were about real life as their first singers experienced it and might perhaps be considered to be an initial manifestation of "music therapy", as they eased communities through life cycles; rites of passage, loss and occasionally -- joy.'

I would simply add that Davislim, Young and Melba Recordings have (remarkably) excelled themselves; this release is worth several times it's weight in gold.

Listen -- Tom Bowling
(track 17, 0:17-1:32) © 2008 Melba Recordings

Copyright © 19 April 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand








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