Britten Song Cycles

Benjamin Britten was less of a presence than usual at this year's Aldeburgh festival, but lovers of his music could find consolation in a series of Britten song cycles in Blythburgh church, masterminded by the accompanist Malcolm Martineau. Six were included in Aldeburgh's London showcase at Kings Place, intended to display the festival's usual fine fare and the fruits of its artist development programmes.

One of the problems with this repertoire is that while the composer is always unmistakably himself, the songs also have the chameleon-like property of completely immersing themselves in the character of the poems being set. The singer has to convey the character of the poems without drowning the rest. Of the six singers, only Nicky Spence erred, his taste for the spry Scots dialect of Who Are These Children? causing him to miscue when handling the searing anger at the heart of these songs.

Praise should go to the soprano Katherine Broderick and tenor James Geer, who gave nuanced and mature renditions of Britten's Pushkin and Hölderlin settings. But it was Benedict Nelson's superbly rich baritone that stole the show. Songs and Proverbs of William Blake is marked by a darkness of mood and bleak mixture of yearning lyricism and uncanny incantation. Controlled and committed, Nelson produced a tour de force.

Martineau's command of this repertoire is second to none and his unfussy playing throughout this long and gruelling programme was perfectly placed. But to judge from his young singers, his qualities as a teacher may yet equal his more celebrated gifts as an accompanist.

Popular Posts