Last week, as part of EMI Classics’ commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, whose birthday will be on November 22, the label released a new recording of a program of his songs performed by tenor Ian Bostridge. Bostridge is accompanied by two EMI artists, Antonio Pappano on piano and, for Songs from the Chinese (Opus 58), guitarist Xuefei Yang. The song collections accompanied by piano cover an assortment of languages and periods: the setting of eight poems by Thomas Hardy in Winter Words (Opus 52), the collection of seven sonnets by Michelangelo Buonarroti (Opus 22), the six fragments by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (Opus 61), and the four songs in English in Britten’s collection of settings of texts by the Scottish poet William Soutar entitled Who are these children? (Opus 84).
This is clearly a highly diverse assortment. However, whether or not Bostridge intended it, there are some interesting factors that make for unity across this collection. Most importantly is the brevity of the individual songs. Britten clearly appreciated the value of less-is-more thinking; and many of these selections leave the serious listener stunned at how much he could back into setting only a few lines of text. This brings up a related factor, which is his acute skill as a reader of poetry. Britten always seemed to know how to cut to the semantic core of a poem, whether that core was embedded in the sophisticated structure of an Italian sonnet or is distilled into a brief fragment of Chinese text (translated into English by Arthur Waley).
Having established what that core was and how it resided in the text, Britten could then define an appropriate musical setting without necessarily adhering slavishly to any of the structural characteristics of that text. One has to wonder whether or not Britten would begin the task of setting a poem by reading it aloud, determining how his own vocal phrasing would best serve that semantic core. That phrasing could then guide how he structured his music far more than any of the linguistic surface structure features. Purists might complain that both the rhythms and the rhyme schemes of the Michelangelo sonnets get lost in this process, but this is music serving expressive poetry rather than any of those many principles of poetic theory that we may have studied in school.
This brings us to the most significant common factor of all, the depth of Britten’s capacity for that expressiveness. All of the poems on this recording are grounded in deeply-felt reflections on human nature; and Britten brings a magnifying glass to those feelings. Bostridge clearly appreciates the depth of Britten’s commitment to these texts, and he brings a comparable depth of expression to his interpretations. The result is music that serves the text so well that one might think that the song was a direct collaboration between author and composer.
A significant portion of Britten’s portfolio emerged from his consummate talent at setting text; this new recording provides a representative sample of just how skilled Britten was in his technique.