Mark Padmore has risen to high artistic esteem in Britain, a position he deserves for his musicality. His devoted following, including reviewers at the Gramophone, is forgiving about some vocal deficits - a weak lower range, quavery vibrato at loud dynamics - in exchange for Padmore's interpretative virtues. It's much the same bargain made with Peter Pears, for whom Britten wrote both the Serenade and Nocturne. This new CD parallels Pears's stereo recording of these two works, which he owned even at an age when the voice wasn't exactly a pleasure to listen to. In the same way, Padmore offers a beautiful, wise, highly convincing reading, the best I've heard in years. And he is helped by the courageous horn playing of Stephen Bell, who comes very close to Barry Tuckwell's flashing virtuosity on the Pears recording. To tell the truth, Padmore is vocally more secure than Pears, so in many ways this is a first-choice recording for me.
The Nocturne is cut from the same cloth - a series of poems with instrumental obligato, but it has never been as popular as the Serenade, because Britten doesn't give us memorable melodies, and the poetry, all centered on the theme of night, isn't set to music as dramatically. Still, no other composer since Mahler has been so successful in creating an orchestral song cycle at this level of mastery (unless you count Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony as a song cycle in disguise). I see that some reviewers consider Padmore less successful in the Nocturne, but he's quite remarkable, I think. The only drawback might be that Jacqueline Shave's conducting of the Britten Sinfonia feels low-key by the composer's high standards - he ranked among those select composers who were also first-rate conductors.
Gerald Finzi's legacy is largely vocal, although even there he's basically unknown in America. His solo cantata from 1938-39, Dies Natalis, is scored for tenor or soprano and strings. According to the Wikipedia entry, it was one of only two works recorded i n Finzi's lifetime before his premature death in 1946 (the composer conducted but was disappointed in the soloist, Joan Cross, in part because she was such a close friend of Britten's. Cross was the original Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes.) The idiom is a pleasant, conservative British pastorale, with texts by the metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne. It's good to hear an obscure work come forward, because Padmore uses his artistry to bring out an extra dimension of spiritual inwardness and passion.
In all, this is a superb CD, and even though it's rather late in the day for yet another Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, this one brings great pleasure.