Notes and Editorial Reviews
In all Britten's multifarious writing for the tenor voice there is no more ecstatically lyrical outpouring than the final section of the first Canticle. It ends a work where the composer exactly matches the elevated thought and emotion of Quarles's poem. The performance here catches as successfully as any I have heard that mood of religious fervour expressed in erotic terms. Rolfe Johnson's unaffected diction, his sweet tone and clean line are mirrored by the refinement and sensuousness of Graham Johnson's playing. They are equally successful with the Hardy settings that comprise Winter Words. Here, as John Evans indicates in his perceptive notes, Britten's writing follows the spare, economical textures of Hardy's poem and foreshadows the
writing in The Turn of the Screw. Although not strictly a cycle, the songs have an obvious uniformity of feeling, Britten identifying with the nostalgia and the recollections of West Country lore and landscape. Singer and pianist faithfully conjure up these images and reflections by their sensitivity to the weight and intensity of words and notes.
The same attributes inform their accounts of the folk settings; the little-known and melancholic The trees they grow so high and the familiar O waly, waly given just the plangent tone they require from the tenor. With The sally gardens and Little Sir William, so closely and inevitably connected with Pears and Britten, it may be hard to hear and accept another valid reading. That is even more the case with the Michelangelo Sonnets. The creators' later, Decca LP recording is certainly equalled here, but the 1942 version (nla), made in the immediate aftermath of the work's creation, has a youthful passion and inspiration nobody is ever likely to match—incidentally, EMI should urgently consider transferring this historically important recording to CD. Yet Rolfe Johnson and his partner are on their own account mighty persuasive in catching the surging, Italianate passion of these ardent settings, even if Rolfe Johnson's tone isn't always quite as liquid and sweet as in the Canticle. His Italian may not be perfect, but it is certainly as idiomatic as that of Pears.
The recorded sound is admirable, both as regards balance between voice and piano and as regards atmosphere. Here we have a tradition carried forward, inevitably modified, but never sullied. If you want this particular collection of works, and the two major ones aren't otherwise represented in the CD catalogue at the moment, you needn't hesitate.
-- Gramophone [5/1990]
reviewing the first CD release of this title, Hyperion 66209
Works on This Recording
Winter Words, Op. 52 by Benjamin Britten
Graham Johnson (Piano),
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Tenor)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1953; England
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