Malcolm Martineau is not just one of his generation’s finest accompanists, but also a first-rate musical curator with an impressive knack for matching songs to singers. This 2-CD collection of Britten songs is the second in its series, notable both for the breadth of repertoire assembled and as a platform for some of Britain’s rising vocal stars.
Much of Britten’s vocal music was of course written expressly for his partner and music, Peter Pears. This collection includes both the first and last piano/voice cycles Britten wrote for the tenor: the amorous Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (performed by Allan Clayton) and Who are these children?, given authentic Scots lilt by Nicky Spence. Robin Tritschler and Benjamin Hulett, take on the other Pears-inspired repertoire, with Hulett’s elegant, witty singing in The Red Cockatoo and other songs especially appealing. Maybe a greater variety among these high male voices would have been welcome – despite its common inspiration, Britten’s music for tenor is remarkably adaptable – but all four sing with admirable commitment and clarity. Also striking is baritone Benedict Nelson, in the dark and mystical Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, his slightly rough-hewn timbre a compelling jolt amid so many sweet-voiced tenors.
Female voices are thinner on the ground, but the dusky beauty of mezzo Jennifer Johnston’s A Charm of Lullabies leaves one wishing for more, and soprano Elizabeth Atherton is impressive, if occasionally too warblingly operatic, in On this island. Martineau’s typically idiomatic playing provides a strong unifying voice; a vivid and equal partner to this exemplary group of young singers. There may be more thrilling recordings available of these cycles, but as an overview of Britten’s remarkable and varied art song output, this collection is hard to fault.