Tuesday 26 November 2019

Artful creation: Marci Meth's The Wild Song mixes Britten folksongs, Yeats poetry and soundscapes by Mycheal Danna

The Wild Song - Marci Meth - Modern Poetics
The Wild Song - Britten folk-song arrangements; Marci Meth, Anna Tilbrook, Simon Russell Beale; Modern Poetics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 November 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Britten folk-songs, Yeats poetry and modern soundscapes in an intriguing sequence

Benjamin Britten created over 60 arrangements of folk-songs and traditional songs over the course of his life, the first dating from 1941 whilst he and Peter Pears were in the USA and Britten was nostalgic for Suffolk. The last from 1976, the last year of his life. A constant thread through the songs was the voice of Peter Pears, the first were written as extras for Britten and Pears recitals together, and the majority date from the 1940s and 1950s, though the final group were written in 1976 when Britten was in a wheelchair, they used harp as accompaniment. Though some were created for Britten's friend, the soprano Sophie Wyss.

But though the voice of Pears is paramount in the songs, they have very much been adopted by singers all over the world, often as a chance for an English-speaking singer to address the audience in song in their native tongue. It helps that many of Britten's choices are well known, and that he rarely re-casts the melody line, instead they are clothed in imaginative harmonies. Sometimes these can seem a little too artful, too clever, and we do not always want to listen to an entire recital (though Hyperion has issued a complete set of them).

The Wild Song is a new disc on a new label, Modern Poetics. On this disc from Paris-based American soprano Marci Meth, pianist Anna Tilbrook and actor Simon Russell Beale, Meth has selected 18 of Britten's songs and paired them with poems by W.B. Yeats. Nearly 50 years older than Britten, but very much of the 20th century and writing in a way which resonates with both the folk-song texts and Britten's treatment of them. A final element in this sonic tapestry is a series of interludes by film composer Mycheal Danna. Danna has used elements from the recording to create sonic tapestries which link and continue from the other elements.

The result is inevitably artful, how could it not be. But then, Britten had no objection to the artful use of folk-song. Though he was never in sympathy with the RVW school of weaving folk-song into the fabric of your musical language, Britten very much admired Grainger's folk-song arrangements and settings, and it seems that Britten and E.J. Moeran developed a friendship in the 1930s and Britten took some of his folk-songs from Moeran's collections.

Meth has a light, bright soprano which she uses with intelligence to give lovely clear accounts of the folk melodies. Perhaps occasionally her tone is a little sharp, and her direct, non-invasive approach means that an element of variety is lacking. Words are always to the fore, she gets and an admirable number over, and makes the songs expressive without pushing them too close into art-song territory. Anna Tilbrook provides admirably complementary support on the piano, where Britten is often at his most creative and inventive, moving the folk-melody away from its basic simplicity. Rather appropriately, the disc was recorded at the Britten Studios in Snape Maltings.

Having the Yeats, read by Simon Russell Beale in a confidingly intimate, yet expressive manner, and Mycheal Danna's soundscapes means that the whole disc turns into an intriguing and highly satisfactory artefact, rather than being an historical survey of Britten's folk-song settings.

The disc itself is beautifully produced, and the booklet includes an article by Meth, complete song texts and poem texts, plus photographs by Lucie Falscher.

The idea of folk-song as a natural element clearly appeals to Meth, in her introductory article she quotes from a book by shepherd (and Oxford graduate) James Rebanks. Inevitably, any treatment of folk-song cannot avoid being artful, even the recordings of folk singers made by Grainger were, the singers often adapting their performance to suit the way they thought the nobs would want to hear the music. And each composer re-shapes the music in their own image. There is an element of cleverness in Britten's treatment which this disc does not brush away but builds on, using extra layers to create something which is very much of the contemporary world.

THE WILD SONG: music by Benjamin Britten and Mychael Danna, from Vimeo.

The Wild Song
Folk-song and traditional song arrangements by Benjamin Britten
Poetry by W.B. Yeats
Interludes by Mycheal Danna
Marci Meth (soprano)
Anna Tilbrook (piano)
Simon Russell Beale (actor)
Recorded 4-7 July 2016, Britten Studios, Snape Maltings
MODERN POETICS MP001 1Cd [59.11]
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