Many lovers of Benjamin Britten's music have no idea that he made extraordinary arrangements of many folksongs. And although this 2CD set is part of Naxos's 'English Song Series' and although it mainly contains songs from the Britain (and Ireland), Britten also set French and American folksongs and they are included here as this issue comprises all his voice-and-piano folksong settings. (He also made voice-and-orchestra versions of some of the songs here but they are not included.) His interest in poetry was intense, and as a friend has commented, 'Britten's knowledge of the obscure corners of English poetry would have put many a professor of English to shame.' His interest in making these settings lasted his entire composing life. Over the years he made six numbered collections: Vols 1, 3, 5 & 6 are primarily British (and some American) folksongs; Vol. 2 French; Vol. 4 Moore's Irish Songs. Also included here are several scattered single songs and songs published posthumously for a total of 52 songs in all. They are parceled out between two of the greatest English singers of the day: soprano Dame Felicity Lott and tenor Philip Langridge. They are mostly accompanied by the best English accompanist since Gerald Moore, pianist Graham Johnson. (One group are accompanied by guitarist Carlos Bonell, and a couple feature cellist Christopher van Kampen.)
The piano accompaniments are generally rather spare, tending not to call attention to themselves, but on closer listening one realizes that Britten has used his own easily identifiable harmonic and structural sense (not surprisingly, one of Britten's favorite devices, the canon, occurs repeatedly), always in pursuit of bringing out the literal meaning and, even more so, the psychology of the song at hand. For instance, he mimics the harp in 'Dear Harp of our Country' and 'The Last Rose of Summer' and the spinning of the mill-wheel in 'The Miller of Dee' or of the spinning wheel in 'Fileuse.' There is the yearning upward interval used to accompany the girl's name in 'Sally in Our Alley.' There is the sad tolling of the bell in 'At the mid hour of the night,' the indecisive alternating chords in 'O Waly, Waly.' Many of these songs are familiar, but many are obscure, at least to this writer. Each is so aptly set that one discovers new things on each listening. Some old favorites, like 'Sail On, Sail On' and 'The Ash Grove' are given fresh colorings. I was amused to realize that that silly Monty Python send-up, 'The Lumberjack Song,' uses (approximately) the tune of 'The Foggy, Foggy Dew' (set here to a melody different than the one I know from my youth).
The performances, not surprisingly, are about as good as they get. I cannot forget the sound of Janet Baker's voice in 'O Waly, Waly,' but this is no criticism of Lott's version, which is also touchingly effective. Langridge, whose diction is a marvel, is similarly effective in such favorites as 'The Plough Boy,' 'The Foggy, Foggy Dew,' and 'The Minstrel Boy.' Is there a more sensitive accompanist than Graham Johnson? I don't think so. I will admit that am not fond of the guitar (clearly my own idiosyncratic taste) but Carlos Bonell is effective in his accompaniment of Vol. 6, which includes 'I will give my love an apple' and 'Bonny at Morn' among others. At the end of CD2 is a song with cello obbligato played by Christopher van Kampen, and an unknown folksong that, in the absence of text, is given to the cello. The texts, too, are worth studying for their folk-wisdom. I was particularly struck by this line from 'Pray Goody': "Remember when the judgement's weak, the prejudice is strong." ('Pray Goody' also has an especially effective piano accompaniment that requires virtuosic control by the pianist.)
Anyone interested in the music of Britten really ought to own this set. It is an aspect of his art that should not be missed.