Wednesday 17 February 2021

A reflection of a lifetime's performing: Benjamin Britten's complete folk-songs for voice and piano in a new recording from Mark Milhofer and Marco Scolastra

Britten Complete folk-songs for voice and piano; Mark Milhofer, Marco Scolastra; Brilliant

Britten Complete folk-songs for voice and piano; Mark Milhofer, Marco Scolastra; Brilliant

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 February 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new set from English tenor Mark Milhofer explores all the folk-songs that Britten produced for himself and Peter Pears to perform

What is a folk-song arrangement for? 
There is an argument that the best thing to do with an English folk-song is to sing it, unaccompanied, just as would have been done by those from whom the song was collected. But composers have written accompaniments to the songs so that they might be performed by those for whom a song needed an accompaniment, in salons and parlours. The doyen of English folk-song collectors, Cecil Sharp, wanted an accompaniment which simply supported the song. Percy Grainger (who horrified English folk-song collectors by using a phonograph when collecting rather than simply writing the music down) wanted the arrangement to be a portrait of singer, including all of the variational details that the original singer brought to the song. RVW [whose arrangements are only just being discovered, see my review], sat between the two but he was clear that he was creating art song. RVW's folk-song arrangements were intended for classically trained singers, to fit into art-song programmes.

Benjamin Britten came from a slightly different English tradition. Whilst he did study at the Royal College of Music, the biggest influence on his music was Frank Bridge who, though he had studied with Sir Charles Villers Stanford, was one of the few English composers of the time interested in the music that was happening on the Continent. Whilst at the Royal College of Music, Britten found his fellow students 'folksy and amateurish'. You feel he sympathised with Constant Lambert whose witty and polemical study Music Ho came out in 1934, and which derided the English pastoral school. Yet Britten came to love the music of Percy Grainger and Britten produced an influential Grainger disc at a time when Grainger's music was not particularly highly regarded (one or two pot-boilers apart).

Britten's folk-song arrangements started with a highly practical purpose, something for Peter Pears to sing, something for Pears to sing in English (the language of most of his audience) and a link to home. The arrangements start being created whilst Britten and Pears are in America, and continue when they return home as the two use them for their wartime recitals. And the songs continue through to the end of Britten's career, with two final groups with guitar and with harp, written after the composer stopped playing in public. This is a clear indication of the songs practical purpose, they were for Peter to perform.

On this new two-disc set from Brilliant Classics, tenor Mark Milhofer and pianist Marco Scolastra perform all of Britten's folk-song arrangements for voice and piano, the published volumes and the unpublished songs [Released 19 February 2021]. The songs are performed in date order, starting with I wonder as I wander which was written in America but never published because of copyright problems, and ending with songs from the late 1950s.

Apart from the volume of French folk-songs (written for the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss), all these songs were written for Peter Pears, but since publication have been taken into the repertoire of countless singers, often filling a function in recital parallel to that in Britten and Pears' recitals, a moment for the singer to sing to the audience in their native language. Few singers nowadays include folk-song arrangements by Grainger or by RVW in their recitals, but Britten's are common.

Partly this is because they don't always sound like folk-song arrangements, Britten takes the original vocal line and then surrounds it with a piano part which amplfies the original narrative in a way which chimes in with Britten's own compositional voice. Britten ignores the folk element, not for him Grainger's inclusion of the variants and improvisations in the melody. Now, here I have to admit that when it comes to Britten's arrangements I am somewhat agnostic. I find that the accompaniments can draw attention to themselves, to speak too much with Britten's accent.

Most collections of the folk-songs use multiple singers, Graham Johnson has Felicity Lott and Philip Langridge on Naxos, and Malcolm Martineau has Lorna Anderson, Regina Nathan, and Jamie Macdougall on Hyperion. Both of these collections also include the songs not with piano, but don't seem to include the unpublished items.

So this disc is very much a labour of love from Mark Milhofer and Marco Scolastra, and Milhofer writes the informative booklet note. Milhofer's voice is very different to that of Pears, and he makes a virtue of this. The tone quality is dark and more dramatic, and Milhofer is not frightened to bring out the more operatic quality of some of the songs. Text is important here, Milhofer's diction is superb (rather necessary as there are no texts), but more than that Milhofer brings out the emotional content of the song. Each song is a small story, and Milhofer ensures we understand that. He varies his accent, not just Scots for The Bonny Earl o'Moray, but something else regional for the dialogue in The Miller of Dee

Milhofer's use of expressive devices in his voice might not agree with everyone, lines are shaped and tone quality changed to bring out the emotion, but I found the performances worked. And with such highly characterised vocal line, the piano part recedes somewhat. When listening to these performances I found I was less aware of Britten's personality, and more aware of the emotional content of the song itself.

Another virtue of the set is its completeness, Milhofer and Scolastra omit volumes six (with guitar) and the songs with harp, but include the extra songs so they still they have 47 songs as compared to Hyperion's 51. We not only have the two duets, The Deaf Woman's Courtship and Soldier, won't you marry me?, in characterful performances with Lorna Windsor, but also The Stream in the Valley with its cello part (played by Umberto Aleandri). This latter is based on a German folksong and was probably written for a recital tour that Britten and Pears gave with cellist Maurice Gendron in the 1950s.

At over two hours of music, this is probably a set to dip into rather than listen from start to finish, but I can testify that Milhofer and Scolastra's performances do not pall if you start and the beginning and work your way to the end. 

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - complete folk-song arrangements for voice and piano
I wonder as I wander
The Salley Gardens
Little Sir William
The Bonny Earl o’ Moray
O can ye sew cushions?
The trees they grow so high
The Ash Grove
Oliver Cromwell
The Crocodile
The Holly and the Ivy
La Noël passée
Voici le printemps
Le roi s’en va-t’en chasse
La belle est au jardin d’amour
Il est quelqu’un sur terre
Eho! Eho!
Quand j’etais chez mon père
The Plough Boy
There’s none to soothe
Sweet Polly Oliver
The Miller of Dee
The Foggy, Foggy Dew
The Stream in the Valley
O Waly, Waly
Come you not from Newcastle?
Pray goody
The Deaf Woman’s Courtship
At the mid hour of night
Rich and rare
Dear Harp of my Country!
The last rose of summer
O the sight entrancing
Avenging and bright
Sail on, sail on
How sweet the answer
The Minstrel Boy
Oft in the stilly night
Soldier, won’t you marry me?
The Brisk Young Widow
Sally in our Alley
The Lincolnshire Poacher
Early one morning
Ca’ the yowes
Tom Bowling
Dink’s Song
Mark Milhofer (tenor)
Lorna Windsor (soprano)
Umberto Aleandri (cello)
Marco Scolastra (piano)
22-24 August 2019, 6-8 August 2020, Theater Clitunno, Trevi (PG), Italy
Released 19 February 2021

Available from Amazon.

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