Wednesday 7 December 2016

Verbal acuity: Ben Johnson in sonnets set by Liszt, Britten and more

Ben Johnson, Sonnets, Champs Hill Records
Sonnets Britten, Brahms, Liszt, Parry, Schubert; Ben Johnson, Graham Johnson; Champs Hill Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 30 2016
Star rating: 4.5

From Schubert to Liszt to Britten, Ben Johnson's absorbing survey of the sonnet in music

For this new disc on the Champs Hill Records label, tenor Ben Johnson has had the intriguing idea of gather together different settings of sonnets. So, accompanied by pianist Graham Johnson, Ben Johnson performs Liszt's Tre Sonnetti di Petrarca, Benjamin Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo, plus Schubert settings of Petrarch (in Schlegel's German translations), Parry's settings of Shakespeare and Keats, and songs by Brahms, William Aikin, RVW, David Bowerman, Andre Caplet and Henri Sauget.

It is a wide and challenging programme, and we have the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition to thank for it. The germ of the programme, linking the Schubert and Liszt settings of Petrarch was part of Ben Johnson's planning for a recital programme when he competed in the competition in 2013 (he won the Audience Prize).

It seems strange that such a wordy form as the sonnet should hold the attention of composers, but it certainly has. And to a certain extent the fascination for this programme is hearing the way different composers wrestle with such a structured form and produce a melding of music and text. The programme plays to Ben Johnson's twin strengths, his ability to conjure wonderfully firm, vibrant Italianate tone, and his considerable abilities as a recitalist.

What strikes you on listening to the opening group of Schubert and Brahms is the combination of beauty of tone, care in shaping the phrases with fine verbal acuity. Ben Johnson doesn't just just sing in fine German, he really makes it tell and this is true throughout the disc, whatever the language (German, English, French, Italian). The Schubert and Brahms songs are complex and often large-scale pieces, and both Johnsons show fine feel for the overall structure.

Liszt dedicated his Tre sonetti di Petrarca to the great tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, who was strongly associated with the operas of Bellini and Donizetti. Liszt's songs require a strong technique from both tenor and pianist. The vocal line takes Bellinian cantilena and applies Lisztian heroics to it. Ben Johnson gives us vibrant, virile tone which is flexible and combined with a sense of the Italian text. This is very much a performance by an opera singer, but one who understands the difference between song and aria, and that is what is needed. Ben Johnson's tone opens up where needed, but he really responds to the text, and I love the way that he can modulate his tone so the songs are about far more than sound.  They are big pieces, and both Johnsons make a gripping piece of drama out of them.

With William Aitkin's Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day we move to the very different world of English song. Parry's songs are still unjustly neglected (he wrote a total of 74 English lyrics), and the three that Ben Johnson and Graham Johnson give us are perfect examples of the finely crafted English song, followed by another lovely example, RVW's Silent Noon. David Bowerman is perhaps not as well known, except in another guise as the creator of Champs Hill, and here shown to be a fine composer.

A pair of French sonnets, Andre Caplet setting Ronsard and Henri Sauget setting Shakespeare in translation lead to the Benjamin Britten group. This opens with his Auden setting, To Lie Flat on the Back from 1937, a delightful and rather slyly sexy song.

Finally we hear Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo from 1940, which were written for Peter Pears. Ben Johnson sings them in a far more heroic way, perhaps, than Pears would have done. But Britten's settings of Michaelangelo have a real muscularity which Ben Johnson brings out. In fact, I rather though that Ben Johnson and Graham Johnson make you think of links to Liszt's Petrarch sonnets, not something which I would have thought of. Ben Johnson's acute performance, culminates in a finely controlled and rather thrilling account of the final sonnet, Spirto ben nato.

Liszt's Petrach sonnets (in their original version for tenor and piano) do not crop up on disc that often, probably because of the very particular combination of qualities that performers need to bring to them. In fact Francesco Meli and Matteo Pais recorded the pairing of Britten and Liszt for a Rosenblatt Recitals disc issued in 2013 (see my review) but this new disc is very much preferable and Ben Johnson and Graham Johnsons account will probably be my favourite of the songs on disc for some time to come.

This is an engaging and absorbing recital, and Ben Johnson's verbal acuteness ensures that the performances do not simply coast along on the simple beauty of his voice. Throughout Graham Johnson is an apt and supportive partner, as adept at conjuring the bravura needed for Liszt as for the very different musics of Parry and Britten.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Sonett III, D630
Franz Schubert - Sonett I, D628
Franz Schubert - Schatzgrabers begehr, D761
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - Ein Sonett, Op.14, no.4
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) - Tre Sonetti di Petrarca
William Aikin (1857-1939) - Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day
Sir Charles Hubert Parry (1848-1918) - No longer mourn for thee
Sir Charles Hubert Parry - Farewell, thou art too dear
Sir Charles Hubert Parry - Bright star
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Silent Noon
David Bowerman (born 1936) - When I most wink
Andre Caplet (1878-1925) - Doux fut le trait
Henri Sauget (1901-1989) - Je te vois en reve
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - To lie flat on the back
Benjamin Britten - Seven sonnets of Michelangelo
Ben Johnson (tenor)
Graham Johnson (piano)
Recorded 18-20 August 2014, the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex.
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