Britten Abroad


Britten’s extraordinary skill and fluency for setting his native language has sometimes obscured his flair for his settings of foreign poetry; some of his very finest are in German, Latin, Italian and Russian.

Susan Gritton and Mark Padmore perform these songs with vigour, marvellously accompanied by Iain Burnside and do great justice to songs which many would regard as being the most distinctive and very finest examples of Britten’s art.

Four French Folksong Arrangements
for high voice and piano

1 La Noël passée
2 Voici le Printemps
3 Fileuse
4 Le roi s’en va-t’en chasse

Um Mitternacht (1960)
for high voice and piano
Text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op.61
for tenor and piano
Texts by Friedrich Hölderlin

1 Menschebeifall
2 Die Heimat
3 Sokrates und Alcibiades
4 Die Jugend
5 Halfte des Lebens
6 Die Linien des Lebens

Four French Folksong Arrangements
for high voice and piano

1 La belle est au jardin d’amour
2 Il est quelqu’un sur terre
3 Eho! Eho!
4 Quand j’étais chez mon père

Britten’s extraordinary skill and fluency for setting his own native language has sometimes obscured the brilliance with which he embraced a wide range of foreign poetry throughout his career. In fact Britten left a series of exquisite settings, some of his very finest, in French, Italian, Latin, German, Russian, Scot dialect and Medieval English; and the role-call of poets attests to the diversity and sophistication of his literary tastes, including the work of Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Artur Rimbaud, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Friedrich Hölderlin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, Bertolt Brecht and William Soutar. The earliest of these works (written when Britten was just fourteen) was the Quatre chansons françaises, settings of Hugo and Verlaine for high voice and orchestra, written in the summer of 1928 for his parents’ twenty-seventh wedding anniversary. Les Illuminations followed a decade later; Latin settings were a constant throughout his career, for his many liturgical settings and notably in War Requiem and the Cantata misericordium; we find Scots dialect in his Souter settings, Who are these children? and his authentic response to the challenge of early English texts is demonstrated in his mystery-play settings, Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac and Noye’s Fludde, and profoundly so in one of his very last works, the choral setting of eight medieval English lyrics, Sacred and Profane. But Britten’s settings of Italian, Russian, French and German, performed here by Susan Gritton, Mark Padmore and Iain Burnside are certainly amongst the most distinctive and very finest examples of his art, each fashioned specifically for a much-loved and favoured artist.

© Dr John Evans


What people are saying

"5 stars ***** … a powerfully eloquent performance … .

The Guardian


"5 stars ***** flawless music-making of the first order"

BBC Music Magazine


"Mark Padmore’s singing of the Michaelangelo Sonnets has all the grace of the young Pears without his mannerisms … Iain Burnside is a tower of strength throughout"

The Sunday Telegraph

Susan Gritton soprano
Mark Padmore
Iain Burnside

Release date:28th Apr 2008
Order code:SIGCD122
Barcode: 635212012222

The Sunday Times, 4th May 2008

Different though they are, putting Britten’s three big foreign-language song cycles with piano on a single disc makes obvious sense. The tenor Mark Padmore opens with an impassioned, vibrantly coloured performance of the earliest of them, the 1940 Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, in which Britten’s musical language and emotions seem set free. He rightly takes a more reflective approach in the Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente (1958), songs in which the issues of mortality, lost innocence and self-doubt are addressed. The Pushkin settings of The Poet’s Echo (1965) demand dramatic, intense colours, and the soprano Susan Gritton duly supplies them. Between cycles, eight beguilingly sung arrangements of French folk songs are shared by the two singers. Throughout, the pianist Iain Burnside traverses this vast, impressive terrain with stylish ease.

Stephen Pettitt

The Daily Telegraph, 17th May 2008

This ingenious programme brings together all of Britten’s settings of foreign-language texts for voice and piano. It is dominated by three major cycles: the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the Pushkin-based Poet’s Echo and the Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente. But is interleaved with arrangements of French folksongs and a posthumously rediscovered Goethe setting from 1960.

With the ever-inventive Iain Burnside at the piano, revelling in Britten’s keyboard felicities, the vocal honours are shared evenly by soprano and tenor. Mark Padmore is commanding in the Italianate, almost bel canto style of the Michelangelo sonnets, and Susan Gritton’s rich-hued timbre and linguistic mastery reap rewards in the Russian and German cycles.

Matthew Rye

The Sunday Telegraph, 18th May 2008

This BBC disc reveals Britten’s remarkable ability to enter wholly into the subtleties of many different languages. Mark Padmore’s singing of the Michaelangelo Sonnets has all the grace of the young Pears without his mannerisms, and Susan Gritton gives a fluent account of the Pushkin cycle The Poet’s Echo. She is again impressive in the rarely heard Hölderlin Fragments and both singers enjoy the French folksong arrangements. Iain Burnside is a tower of strength throughout.

Michael Kennedy

The Times, 24th May 2008, ***

Britten was a compulsive songwriter – Italian, Russian, German and French poetry benefited from his lyrical gift. The tenor Padmore is easy over the horn-blown heights on Veggio co’bei. Gritton is more shrill and rather overdoes the Pushkin poems The Poet’s Echo, although she shows agonised restraint in the paranoid last. They share the German and French, Padmore summoning Goethe’s morose midnight, Gritton Hoelderlin’s youth, both alternating the amusing Gallic folksongs. Gritton all but steals the album with the haunting Il est Quelqu’un. Burnside gives witty impressions of a spinning wheel, insomniac’s clock and Messiaen-like nightingale at the keys.

Rick Jones

The Guardian, 30th May 2008, *****

Under the title Britten Abroad, this beautifully conceived and vividly performed collection brings together all the songs Benjamin Britten composed to non-English texts. It’s dominated by three of the less well-known song cycles. The Michelangelo Sonnets from 1940 was Britten’s first work explicitly composed for Peter Pears and contains some of the most passionately personal music he ever produced; the Hölderlin Fragments were also written for the tenor, in 1958, while the Pushkin settings of The Poet’s Echo date from 1965 and were dedicated to the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband Mstislav Rostropovich. Alongside those are some French folksong arrangements, and Britten’s only Goethe setting, the weirdly meditative Um Mitternacht, from 1960. Tenor Mark Padmore takes the Michelangelo cycle by the throat, and wrings out of it a powerfully eloquent performance, and he’s equally persuasive in the Hölderlin settings, while soprano Susan Gritton does not attempt the histrionics that Vishnevskaya brought to the Pushkin songs, but invests them instead with genuinely credible dramatic intensity. Iain Burnside is a model accompanist. An outstanding disc.

Andrew Clements

BBC Music Magazine – Proms 2008 (July)
Performance *****, Recording *****

What an inspired idea not only to bring together Britten’s mature foreign language songs, but also to have the programme shared by two of Britain’s keenest and brightest singers. I had a few very small reservations to begin with over Mark Padmore’s artfulness and occasional small linguistic slip in the Michelangelo Sonnets; once heard, Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s delivery of Sonnet 30 can never be forgotten, and he manages the climatic phrase with its flip over to a top B without having to adjust the text as Padmore does. Susan Gritton, too, projects the Russian text of the Pushkin settings less urgently than their original interpreter Galina Vishnevskaya, but captures something of the Russian soprano’s most luminous, hallowed tone and remains purer under pressure.

The second half of the recital, though, is flawless music-making of the first order. Britten’s French folksong settings, like his Tom Moore Irish sequence, tend to be overshadowed by the English songs, but the piano parts, delicately rendered by Iain Burnside if without quite Britten the pianist’s ethereal light, are full of unselfconscious individuality. Gritton and Burnside share the honours here, and it’s impossible to choose between the Christmas song and ‘Il est quelqu’un sur terre’ for seemingly artless simplicity. The Hölderlin settings, prefaced by a rare Goethe number first performed in 1992, are Britten at his most essential, and Gritton makes the best possible case for a soprano interpretation. So delight and spiritual depths go hand in hand. The recital is vividly recorded, the voices well forward though, not at the expense of the piano part, and handsomely presented, with an informative essay by John Evans.

David Nice

International Record Review, July/ August 2008

‘Britten Abroad’ is thus called because it brings together some of the composer’s folk-song arrangements and settings of poems written in languages other than English. The mixture of Italian, Russian, French and German languages makes for a varied and interesting programme, as does the use of both soprano and tenor voice, with the work being fairly evenly distributed between Susan Gritton and Mark Padmore. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t so long ago that Padmore recorded Britten’s Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente and Um Mitternacht (with Roger Vignoles on Hyperion), which is perhaps another reason for Gritton’s taking the former here – though Padmore does sing the latter.

Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, completed in 1940, were the first songs Britten wrote especially for Peter Pears, while he dedicated the Pushkin settings that make up the Poet’s Echo to Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya; both gave the first performance in December 1965. The superb Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente were written in 1958 as a fiftieth birthday present for Britten’s friend Prince Ludwig of Heese and Rhine; two years later Britten penned his setting of Goethe setting and remained unpublished during his lifetime. The eight French folk-song settings that form Volume 2 of Britten’s six collections of Folk-Song Arrangements, published between 1943 and 1961, were written for the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss in 1942 and dedicated to her two sons.

Four of these come before the German songs, the four that end the disc come after. In the first group, Padmore and Iain Burnside capture the delicate melancholy of ‘Voici le printemps’ in such a way as to point up the kinship with Gritton’s wistful ‘Fileuse’; in the second, tenor and pianist again find much value in a light touch with ‘La belle est au jardin d’amour’, while Gritton brings a philosophical wryness to ‘Quand j’étais chez mon pére’, the final song on the disc.

The disc opens, however, with Britten’s magnificent settings of seven of Michelangelo’s 200 or so sonnets. The love Michelangelo’s lyrics profess is ostensibly platonic – all were written in the artist’s old age – but it’s hard to avoid a homoerotic edge lurking beneath the surface of many, especially ‘Sonetto LV’, which was written for Tommaso Cavlieri a young nobleman. Padmore and Burnside seem at one with both text and music in these settings, sweeping fluently from the dramatic stridency of ‘Sonetto XXVI’ through the attenuated emotions of ‘Sonetto XXX’s vicarious experiences (surely one of the most beautiful sonnets Michelangelo penned) to the moving ‘Sonnetto XXIV’, where Britten at first keeps voice and piano separate before bringing them lovingly together.

Gritton is equally convincing in the Pushkin settings, especially when inhabiting the spaciousness of ‘Echo’, where the poet likens his poems to echoes that respond to nature but never receive a reply in return, or spinning out the melismatic writing of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’. I was less convinced in the Hölderlin group, but only perhaps because I’m conditioned to hearing a male voice in these songs. ‘Die Heimat’ is certainly deeply felt, while Gritton portrays the underlying anxiety of ‘Hälfte des Lebens’ with great subtlety.

Burnside, though, is the star of ‘Linien des Die Lebes’, relishing the troubling chords that march inexorably towards a Pyrrhic victory in the major mode. He likewise wallows in the dark pools of the 12 chords – one of each stroke of midnight – of Um Mitternaucht, though he also enjoys rising to the surface in the twinkling tones of the piano’s upper register. Padmore for his part is just as persuasive here as he is with Vignoles.

Robert Levett

MusicWeb International, August 2008

The first Britten songs I ever heard were the song cycles Winter Words and the Michelangelo Sonnets. They were a part of the superb Decca Eclipse series that was so influential in the early seventies. In fact, I think I still have the old vinyl recording in my library ? I guess I kept it for sentimental reasons and for the beautiful photograph. Of course the Peter Pears/ Benjamin Britten recording of these songs have been released on CD and are no doubt essential discs in every Britten enthusiast?s collection. Yet it is important that these works are reinterpreted for each generation, and what was an appropriate style of singing in the 1940s may be less satisfactory sixty years later.

For my money, the review in the Daily Telegraph sums up this present release – "Mark Padmore’s singing of the Michelangelo Sonnets has all the grace of the young Pears without his mannerisms ..? It is one of the strange things about Peter Pears – on the one hand I treasure his renditions of English song and on the other I find myself sometimes reacting less than positively to his style. Yet the bottom line is that the Pears/Britten recording is the baseline from which, I imagine, all others will be judged for many years to come.

After some thirty years of music listening, I still regard the Sonnets and the Winter Words as being amongst Britten?s masterpieces: both cycles seem to re-define many preconceived notions about English lieder. The one is typically English in its explorations and the other turns its focus to the wider musical world.

It is not necessary to discuss the Sonnets in any detail, save, to point out that they were completed in the United States in 1940 and were the first songs to be composed specifically for Pears. It is a celebration of their love for each other and the beginning of their personal and professional partnership. These songs are inspired by the Italian ?bel canto? tradition and this influence informs both the ?internal structure and the musical language?.

I do not know the song-cycle The Poet?s Echo Op. 76, so this was a good opportunity to try to get to grips with it. The work was composed whilst Britten and Pears were on holiday in Russia: they were staying with Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya. At this time Britten had been considering a song-cycle with Russian texts for Vishnevskaya and he had purchased a copy of Pushkin?s poems in a parallel Russian/English translation. The programme notes suggest that the central theme of the cycle is ?the artist?s struggle to elicit some response from an uncomprehending world.? I enjoyed the piece, but feel that the musical language is not as approachable as his earlier cycles.

Um Mitternacht , a poem by Goethe, is also new to me. It was composed around 1960, however, for some reason this work remained unpublished during the composer?s lifetime. The sentiment of the poem is the passage of time, and this is appropriate as the composer was close to his fiftieth birthday. This is dark music that never has a flash of light. But then again, the theme of the poem is ?At Midnight? so that is to be expected. The English translation does not really endear this poem to me and I guess it loses some of its seriousness. Perhaps the loveliest thing on the disc is the Sechs Hölderlin-Fragments which was composed in the summer of 1958. Britten himself regarded these songs highly and declared that they were ?probably my best vocal works so far?. It could be argued that these were his attempt at writing German lieder- yet as Dr John Evans in his excellent sleeve-notes points out, they are more Alban Berg that Franz Schubert. That, notwithstanding, this is a stunningly beautiful reflection on life as time passes. The cycle progresses from a consideration of worldly fame, to a longing for the lost innocence of childhood and ending up with a degree of self doubt. The cycle was a gift to Prince Ludwig of Bavaria on his fiftieth birthday ? a thoughtful gift, certainly, with both men dwelling on the frailty of their reputations. Some of the most attractive and downright beautiful pieces on this CD are the folksong settings of French texts. In fact if I was to suggest a starting point for people interested in discovering Benjamin Britten?s vocal works it would be these eight arrangements. There is a simplicity and a subtlety about these pieces that make them almost timeless. Britten is well known for his English Folksong settings, including the ubiquitous Sally Gardens . Yet in these present songs he finds all that is best in Gallic charm and infuses this into virtually every note. The Times critic suggest that "Gritton all but steals the album with the haunting Il est Quelqu’un". It is a sentiment with which I would wholeheartedly agree. This is one of most gorgeous pieces of music by Britten in particular and in European music in general. What we have here is a wonderful CD. I accept that not all the pieces presented may be everyone?s cup of tea. Certainly I needed to do a double-take on The Poet?s Echo. But taken in the round it is a fine presentation of a selection of the composer?s works. It covers that which is well-known, such as the Sonnets and works from the ?hidden? repertoire such as the Um Mitternacht and the folksong settings.

The singing and the playing are superb, the presentation is second to none and the programme notes are ideal. All in all, this is a fine production.

John France

Classic FM Magazine, September 2008, ***** 5 stars

For all his rootedness in the east Suffolk landscape, Britten’s sensibility for ‘exotic’ sounds (whether musical or linguistical) helped carry his work in directions rarely explored by other English composers. His settings of German, French and Italian poetry are both unmistakeably Britten and, more often then not, idiomatic in their treatment of foreign words. That’s certainly the impression left by this outstanding recital. Listen, for example, to Mark Padmore’s haunting delivery of ‘Um Mitternacht’ or Susan Gritton’s sinuous exposition of “Des Linien des Lebens’. The superior qualityof the music-making here matches that of the music itself. A great album.

Andrew Stewart

  1. Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22 – Sonetto XVI Si come nella penna e nell?inchiostro – –
  2. – Sonetto XXXI A che piu debb?io mai l?intensa voglia – –
  3. – Sonetto XXX Veggio co?bei vostri occhi un dolce lume – –
  4. – Sonetto LV Tu sa?ch?io so, signior mie, che tu sai – –
  5. – Sonetto XXXVIII Redete a gli occhi miei, o fonte o fiume – –
  6. – Sonetto XXXII S?un casto amor, s?una pieta superna – –
  7. – Sonetto XXIV Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia evede – –
  8. The Poet?s Echo, Op.76 – Echo – –
  9. – My Heart … – –
  10. – The Rose – –
  11. – The Nightingale and the Rose – –
  12. – Epigram – –
  13. – Lines written during a sleepless night – –
  14. Four French Folksong Arrangements – La No?l pass?e – –
  15. – Voici le Printemps – –
  16. – Fileuse – –
  17. – Le roi s?en va-t?en chasse – –
  18. – Um Mitternacht (1960) – –
  19. Sechs H?lderlin-Fragmente, Op.61 – Menschenbeifall – –
  20. – Die Heimat – –
  21. – Sokrates und Alcibiades – –
  22. – Die Jugend – –
  23. – H?lfte des Lebens – –
  24. – Die Linien des Lebens – –
  25. Four French Folksong Arrangements – La belle est au jardin d?amour – –
  26. – Il est quelqu?un sur terre – –
  27. – Eho! Eho! – –
  28. – Quand j??tais chez mon p?re – –
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