The main work on this disc, the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, is certainly one of Britten's more difficult song cycles to love, with their sparse piano writing and, on occasions, almost spoken text, they lack an immediate impact. However, with repeated listening you come to appreciate the wonders that lie within this dark and intense cycle!
Unusually for Britten the fourteen pieces are cast as a continuous piece which was designed to highlight the lyricism and dramatic character of its dedicatees, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, voice. The texts were chosen by Peter Pears from Blake's Songs of Experience (1794), with the addition of one poem from the Songs of Innocence (1789) as well as from the undated Proverbs of Hell, these proverbs forming not only foil, but also a link between the more expressive poems. Despite the songs austerity of the piano writing, there is some really expressive, if subdued music here, the way that Britten underpins the vocal line in A Poison Tree and The Tyger for example, or the way that the left hand highlights the fluttering of wings in The Fly is truly wonderful.
For Tit for Tat, Britten turned to Walter de la Mare, a favourite poet of his youth, setting a cycle of five songs, which were premiered by John Shirley-Quirk at the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival. These songs are lighter in character than the Blake settings, they hark back to the songs of his youth are more traditional in style, having as their pivotal point a wonderful setting of Walter de la Mare's arguably most famous poem, Silver. It is a shame that the texts for these five songs are not provided, either in the booklet or online!
The rest of the disc is taken up by ten of Britten's most famous folk-song settings, including The Plough Boy, Oliver Cromwell and The Sally Gardens.
Roderick Williams is an excellent interpreter of these songs; his performance of the Blake settings for example is, for me, more preferable than that by Gerald Finley on Hyperion. This is mainly due to Williams' tone being just that bit higher and lighter that Finley, which tends to accentuate the ethereal character of Blake's texts more. There isn't much between Williams and Finley when it comes to their performance of Tit for Tat, with both singers having a lot to offer, although you do get the printed text with the Hyperion disc. Williams is excellent in the folk-songs, his voice is full of expression which he uses well to accentuate the different character of the songs.
I feel I must mention Iain Burnside, whose piano playing is superb, for me it has the edge over Finley's accompanist, Julius Drake, this is a real partnership between singer and pianist. I still miss Burnside's Sunday morning program on Radio 3, but if he is going to produce recordings like this instead, well it's well worth doing without!
An excellent and highly recommendable recording!