Considering that the earliest recording here dates from 1944, the sound quality on this disc is nothing short of marvellous. The 1944 item is the Britten Serenade, with the youthful Pears in superb form, his diction clear enough to make a printed text superfluous. Of the other items here, Facade was originally recorded in 1953 or 1954 depending on which page of the leaflet you believe, and the four Britten folksong arrangements date from 1959 and 1961.
This is living history. Britten's Serenade was only one year old when he first put it on record with Pears and the late Dennis Brain. It is an out-and-out masterpiece as far as I am concerned. An instrumental prelude and postlude, with the horn solo sublimely performed by Brain, flank six outstandingly fine poems, linked by images of darkness but otherwise strongly contrasted in style, period and idiom. If I have a favourite among them, it would have to be the spooky Scottish ballad, but that only makes it a favourite among favourites. Britten's resourcefulness in responding to their shades of shade is what elevates this from a refined anthology into a haunting, beautiful and intensely personal and original miniature chamber cantata. What, I have to ask myself, would be the market value of a recording of Wachet auf directed by the composer? We have come to take some wonders for granted.
I am a strong enthusiast for Walton, although not so much of one for the general ambience of the 1920's, Galsworthy, Brideshead Revisited and the rest of that precious and over-refined scene. The direction here is from Anthony Collins not Walton himself, but I don't suppose it's any the worse for that. The 21 Edith Sitwell poems here represent the final selection that poet and composer settled on for a revival of the work in 1942, although there seems to have been some further tinkering with their sequence in case anyone cares. They are extremely arch, smart, arty and obviously the height of sophistication in their time. I can still raise a faint smile at their clever-clever artificiality without feeling the smallest urge to remind myself of anything I once knew about the hidden references, veiled allusions and other intimations of being top of the modish intellectual froth. Pears shares the recitation with the author, even breaking into semi-song at one point, and the sound is once again admirably and remarkably clear. Words are not provided, as they are not for the folksongs either, so I have to assume that the cost-line had hit the budget at that point. The real attraction of Facade, for me, is Walton's contribution, typically wry and lively. His talent had obviously done the trick in getting him adopted by the Sitwell circle, and I can imagine with what determination he ensured that he would never be subjected to what was known under the Roman empire as `relegatio' from such metropolitan sophistication to his native Oldham.
Britten achieves the minor miracle of reconciling me to English folk-song settings. In general I loathe English folk-songs and in particular I loathe the cowpat school of English composers who were so fixated with them, consummating their iniquities with musical settings of my beloved Housman, who does not go to music in the least. An irreverent listener is likely to recall Peter Ustinov's immortal parody of these settings `Little Miss Britten', but genius will win in the end. The sheer distinction both of the harmonisation and of the accompanimental writing wins even me over. All told, a historical treasure, outstandingly well preserved.