Britten’s song cycles

by Simon Collings

Mark Padmore and Graham Johnson gave a wonderful recital on Sunday (14 April) of Schubert lieder, along with Britten’s song cycles Winter Words op.52 and Sechs Hölderlin Fragmente op.61. The Schubert pieces were selected to complement the themes of the Britten.

The warmth and character of Padmore’s singing and Johnson’s lucid and inspired accompaniment were riveting. I go to quite a lot of concerts and it is only occasionally that one stands out as really masterful. You don’t want it to stop.

As an encore they sang the last of Schubert’s songs, ‘Die Taubenpost’. Johnson introduced the piece by recalling Peter Pears performing it after Britten’s death. Pears had been overcome with emotion during the song and had not been able to continue.

Padmore has recorded Winter Words with Roger Vignoles for Harmonia Mundi. I’ve just downloaded the album. It obviously isn’t the same as a live performance but worth listening to. Better still, check his website for upcoming concerts. He will perform the Hölderlin at the Aldeburgh Festival this year.

In introducing Sunday’s concert Padmore said that Britten is at his most emotionally open in his foreign-language settings. I hadn’t thought of this before but it’s true. Setting a foreign language seems to liberate Britten. The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo op. 22 are an outpouring of his love for Peter Pears.

Britten’s music is the focus of a year-long celebration in Oxford, marking the centenary of the composer’s birth. On 10 May John Mark Ainsley will perform the Michelangelo Sonnets with Roger Vignoles. Schubert again features in the programme.  Ainsley will be talking about Britten’s tenor repertoire the following day at a workshop.

More Britten songs are to feature in the Oxford Lieder Festival in October.