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Innocence and Experience
on 30 April 2013
Britten was a prolific writer of English songs, but he was disinclined to have any association with the 'Pastoral School' (which included Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Gurney). In fact, he once remarked that 'the best way to make me like Elgar is to listen to him after Vaughan Williams'.
Instead, Britten looked back to the golden age of English music, and stated that his aim was to 'try to restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell'.
On this disc we have not only English songs, but settings of Italian and German texts too, as well as a translation from the Chinese. The Michelangelo Sonnets were dedicated to Pears, whilst the Songs from the Chinese were written to be accompanied by guitar as a tribute to Pears' association with Julian Bream.
Ian Bostridge's collaboration with Antonio Pappano runs from the opera stage to the more intimate lieder recital, and over the years it's developed into a very close partnership. Pappano's instinctual reaction to Bostridge's mood is acute; the colours and textures he forms at times tease, at times soothe the singer. The interplay between the partners can be gentle or capricious, but they are bound as one here.
Xufei Yang is Bostridge's partner in the Arthur Waley translations from the Chinese, again supporting with an intuitive feeling for the somewhat melancholy intensity in these songs.
The loss of childhood innocence and sense of wonder is a theme which occurs again and again in Britten's music, and it's conveyed here with fragility and purity which is at times overwhelmingly poignant. It can also be heartbreaking, for instance in the setting of Hardy's 'Midnight on the Great Western' from Winter Words, where the lonely journeying boy looks forward to a destination he knows not where.
Bostridge himself seems to have absorbed this music to the core; the words fall as from the lips of the poet, the music a direct response as if from the composer's own soul. This is surely one of the recording highlights of the Britten Centenary.