This is a marvellous disc of the most famous Britten orchestral Song Cycles - not so much for Bostridge's singing as for the stunning playing of the strings of the Berlin Philharmonic and the excellent conducting of Simon Rattle.
The very opening bars of Les Illuminations give a thrilling taste of excitements to come as the divided violins throw the fanfares from side to side of the stereo spectrum. In the hands of the Berlin Phil, Les Illuminations reveals itself to be as big a compendium of string orchestra techniques as the Frank Bridge Variations. Here are wonderfully light harmonics, creepy harmonic glissandos, perfectly together full-bodied pizzicati, haunting cantilenas, rich thrumming accompaniments. Ensemble throughout is impressively immaculate. Antique is hauntingly beautiful, Being Beauteous achingly so. Bostridge's singing is also impressive in these Rimbaud settings, bringing to some of the songs a real baritonal quality to set beside his more familiar headtones - perhaps suggesting that a Pelleas from him might be an interesting proposition. For me, the sound of the original soprano voice works better in these songs (they were first done by Sophie Weiss): it rises freer and cleaner of the string accompaniments. But Bostridge is fine among the tenor versions, up there with Pears himself.
The Serenade fares a little less well after such an impressive opening. Maybe the horn player, Radek Baborak, is to blame. He seems a little cautious - the phrases of the Prologue and Epilogue seem a little disjointed, the keening sounds of Blake's Sick Rose lack the last ounce of passionate commitment, the scary glissandi in the Lyke Wake Dirge are barely touched in compared to the hair-raising whoops of a Tuckwell or even a Brain and Ben Jonson's Queen and Huntress doesn't have quite the lightness of step she should. Bostridge, too, seems to be straining a bit hard and Fischer-Dieskau-like to get the last ounce of meaning from the text. The plosive 't' at the end of 'elephant' in Cotton's Pastoral practically splashes the listener. He has recorded the Serenade before (also with a German orchestra) and despite the wonderful playing here of the Berlin strings - their splendour falls magnificently on Tennyson's castle walls - it's the earlier version I would prefer.
The horn player is better in his onomatopoeic Middleton song in the Nocturne. Indeed, all the soloists are excellent in this cycle and I would single out Stefan Schweigert's bassoon solo in The Kraken for particular praise. The Nocturne always seems to get rather short shrift in comparison to the Serenade or even Les Illuminations. For me it is the finest of the three cycles. It is a central piece among Britten's explorations of sleep around that time - the Dream, the guitar Nocturnal, the piano Notturno, 'Let us Sleep' in War Requiem and 'Dormi nunc' in the Cantata Misericordium are all roughly contemporaneous. It is also more of a cycle than the Serenade with its linking 'breathing' motif on the strings (which was actually rescued from a setting of Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, written for but rejected from the Serenade). Bostridge is better here with a little less obvious pointing of words. He copes with the magical melismas of the Coleridge setting well. He holds nothing back in Wordsworth's nightmare recollections of the September Massacres with a full-bodied scream on the parlando 'Sleep no more'. Owen's Kind Ghosts sound more than ever like a precursor of the Owen settings in War Requiem and Rattle secures a wonderfully heavy tread from his string players. Perhaps only Pears had the secret of those magic Britten phrases that flow straight through the natural break in the voice (the arch of 'Thus I my best beloved's am' at the end of Canticle 1 or the rising Dona nobis pacem in War Requiem come to mind): Bostridge can't quite match him in the similar phrase for the last couplet of the Shakespeare Sonnet, but for the rest he does achieve a near perfect balance of melodic line with judicious pointing of Shakespeare's pun-fest.
The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic again is a joy to hear in this song. The voicing of the chord when all the obbligato instruments and the strings play together for the first time at the beginning of the Shakespeare is breathtaking and Rattle makes the climax of the Sonnet (and indeed the whole cycle) an overwhelming moment. The recording quality throughout this disc is superb - crystal clear but with true warmth and depth. Bostridge contributes a fascinating essay to the booklet and all the texts are there, too. All in all, an outstanding issue.
on 14 July 2013
For me, Ian Bostridge's intelligent interpretations, superb technique, singing style and timbre provide a benchmark of excellence amongst the younger generation of performers. These performances charm, delight and impress in equal measure. For me, a great purchase.
on 25 November 2011
Often it seems as if though there is an unwritten agreement that the music of Great Britain is intended to be played only by its own musicians. There are exceptions to the rule, of course; Americans don't seem to hesitate too much. But how often do the major non-British European orchestras play real British music? Of course the pop classics like Holst's Planets see their share of non-British interpreters, but whoever said that the Planets are very British to begin with?
Of course Sir Simon Rattle is British, and he frequently played music of his home country with British orchestras. But on this disc, featuring Ian Bostridge singing Britten, he takes a bold move, as he's conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. I'll argue that they're the world's greatest orchestra, and they can produce sounds that don't come from British orchestras. This isn't to say that I don't like British orchestras--far from it. It's just that the rarity of hearing the Berliners in this music makes it a special treat. I'd feel much the same way about other top-notch European orchestras, particularly the Vienna Philharmonic. But enough talk about how unique it is that the Berlin Phil is playing this music. You want to know how the music actually turned out.
Let's go. The disc starts with Britten's Les Illuminations, which uses French texts. It's a bright, sprightly work, and it's unique to hear the mixing of French and British elements, not to mention the addition of a German orchestra. Bostridge sings with humor, but there's always a sense of mystery. Rattle and the Berliners prove to be wonderful accompanists, but that's an understatement. All musicians give their all, combing dashing spirits with a wistful singing quality. There's a certain quality about both Bostridge and Rattle that makes us feel as if though we're in a world of long ago.
Reviewers have accused Rattle and Bostridge of fussiness in the Serenade. Perhaps they are fussy, but I'm more than willing to forgive them for their flaws, due to the sheer glory of the sound. Fussiness may be fatal in a Beethoven symphony, but when we're talking about English texts set to music, it's forgivable. After all, these songs require intricate phrasing in order for them to take their effect. Certainly all involved play with beauty that tugs at your heart. Radek Baborak is a first rate horn player if there ever was one, and his solos, particularly in the Elegy, are beyond words. Rattle and the Berliners play with urgency, giving us soul that you don't get from the best of British orchestras. In the end, I'll let you decide its success, but I'm awfully sympathetic.
I haven't heard anyone offer much criticism for this version of the Nocturne, and it's for good reason. This is a beautiful account, livened by the addition of quite a few of Berlin's first desk soloists. Personally, this is my favorite work on the disc. I simply love Britten's poetic grasp on the music; it transports you into a world of enchanted dreams, just like a nocturne should. But that's not to say that this is music for the feeble minded. There are moments of pure terror (Prelude) to balance the ones of childlike ecstasy (Sleep and Poetry). Bostridge sings with conviction, and mystery where necessary, but he also knows how to don innocence. The work demands quite a lot of flexibility, and Bostridge has what it takes. Rattle and the Berliners deserve at least half the credit, with Rattle transporting his orchestra, allowing them to delve into the music. Again, the sounds this orchestra makes are unbeatable. It's tough to listen to the closing of the piece (Sonnet 43) without pulling your handkerchief out.
Rattle has dared to take Britten out of Britain. Has he been successful? I'll dare to say that he has.