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A disc that makes you think, but also satisfies as a recital in its own right: Songs for Peter Pears from Robin Tritschler & friends

A disc that makes you think, but also satisfies as a recital in its own right: Songs for Peter Pears from Robin Tritschler & friends
A disc that makes you think, but also satisfies as a recital in its own right: Songs for Peter Pears from Robin Tritschler & friends
Songs for Peter Pears: Berkeley, Britten,, Arthur Oldham, Richard Rodney Bennett, Geoffrey Bush; Robin Tritschler, Malcolm Martineau, Sean Shibe, Philip Higham; Signum Classics

Songs for Peter Pears: Berkeley, Britten, Arthur Oldham, Richard Rodney Bennett, Geoffrey Bush; Robin Tritschler, Malcolm Martineau, Sean Shibe, Philip Higham; Signum Classics
Reviewed 11 June 2024

Exploring the wide variety of music written for and commissioned by Peter Pears in wonderfully sensitive yet vividly evocative performances by Robin Tritschler and friends.

On the terrific disc from Signum Classics, tenor Robin Tritschler, pianist Malcolm Martineau, guitarist Sean Shibe and cellist Philip Higham present Songs for Peter Pears, a programme of music written for the great English tenor that goes beyond the usual Britten songs. Here we have Lennox Berkeley’s Five Housman Songs and Songs of the Half-Light, Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Arthur Oldham’s Five Chinese Lyrics, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s Tom O’Bedlam’s Song, plus Geoffrey Bush’s Songs of the Zodiac which was dedicated to Pears and Britten’s memory.

The disc could have been a lot longer, Peter Pears sang an enormous amount of contemporary music alongside his older repertoire. Regarding Pears’ influence it is worth quoting Robin Tritschler’s booklet essay, “Pears’ influence on and association with certain music remains so firm, that all English-speaking tenors since shall forever be compared to him. The constant challenge when singing the works presented on this album, and similarly with many others, especially those by Britten, is breaking free of the Pears sound which seems ingrained in the fabric of the music. Many of the composers who wrote works for Pears may be delighted if later generations of tenors aped his performance and delivery. But I imagine Pears himself would prefer the singer to revel in the joy of their own voice and music making.”

We begin with Lennox Berkeley’s Five Housman Songs, written in 1940, just after Britten and Berkeley had parted company as Britten chose Pears. That Berkeley wrote the songs for Britten and Pears, and that he chose some of Housman’s later, more explicitly homosexual lyrics including the profoundly indicative ‘Because I liked you better’, it is not surprising that the songs went into a drawer, only to be resurrected 35 years later when Pears gave the manuscript to Peter Dickinson and Ian Partridge for performance. They are terrific. Lyrical yet spiky and all with a remarkable intensity to them. The first, ‘The half-moon westers low’ is lyrical yet dark, the voice over a flowing piano. ‘The street sounds to the soldiers’ tread’ puts the lyrical voice over a march, ‘He would not stay for me’ is quiet and concentrated, ‘Look not in my eyes’ is light and mobile, whilst ‘Because I liked you better’ is quiet and intense.

Written for the 1965 Aldeburgh Festival, Berkeley’s Songs of the Half-Light were commissioned by Pears who premiered them with guitarist Julian Bream. They set poems by Walter de la Mare, then a deeply unfashionable poet. Here, Robin Tritschler is joined by guitarist Sean Shibe. ‘Rachel’ is light, dancing yet complex, the sound world half way between English lyricism and European complexity. ‘Full Moon’ is intense and quiet, and very nocturnal in feel. ‘All that’s past’ seems flowing and lyrical, yet is not simple at all. We return to the nocturnal with ‘The Moth’, quietly mesmeric with wonderful descriptive writing in the guitar. Finally, ‘The Fleeting’ which pits Tritschler’s expressive, unaccompanied voice against the Spanish guitar flurries. Throughout, the atmosphere can only be described as Britten-esque and the poet’s fondness for the themes of childhood and the desire to return to it could also perhaps be seen as indicative.

Written in 1940, Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo were the first songs he wrote specifically for Pears’ voice. All but one of the sonnets were write by Michelangelo for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the young aristocrat that Michelangelo was passionate about. ‘Sonetto XVI’ introduces us to Tritschler’s intensity of line and vivid tone when singing these, along with Malcolm Martineau’s wonderfully robust yet sympathetic piano. Tritschler’s Italian is idiomatic and vibrant yet without that degree of relish that some singers bring. ‘Sonetto XXXI’ is detailed and mobile, Britten almost allowing himself to write something quasi-melodic, and here we approach closest perhaps to Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets. ‘Sonetto XXX’ gives us a highly concentrated opening, both performers relishing Britten’s almost major/minor clash and hypnotic manner. ‘Sonetto LV’ is rhythmic and vivid, both performers using rhythm to create intensity and agitation, yet as the song unfolds this seems to unspool. ‘Sonetto XXXVIII’ is a sort of highly personal serenade, Tritschler’s shapely yet intimate vocal line matched by the vividness of Martineau’s playing and we could definitely hear this on the guitar. ‘Sonetto XXXII’ is a dazzling verbal tour de force, that hurries on, tripping over itself. Finally, ‘Sonetto XXIV’ is wonderfully affirmatory, Tritschler bringing remarkable focus and brightness to the unaccompanied lines, partnered by Martineau’s strong piano, yet we end on a note of tenderness. As Tritschler’s booklet note makes clear, we can read another story into the cycle, as the songs seem to form a narrative of Britten coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Arthur Oldham is perhaps best known as a stupendous choir trainer, forming the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and a number of other choirs. But he was also Britten’s only pupil though he seems to have had a crisis of confidence and gave up music for while. His Five Chinese Lyrics were written in 1945 when he was studying with Britten. Britten and Pears performed the songs several times and recorded three of them.

Under the Pondweed introduces us to the songs very Britten-ish atmosphere, the highly effective piano writing and the interesting lyrical writing for the voice. The result, combining words and music, is highly mysterious. The Herd Boy’s Song is vividly chattery, whilst Fishing and The Pedlar of Spells are tiny but full of wonderful character. The elegantly gentle A Gentle Wind finishes things with a delicate atmosphere, except as the song progresses things become somewhat more disturbing.

Peter Pears first met Richard Rodney Bennett at Morley College in 1955 where the tenor awarded the young composer first prize in a song competition. Pears’ commissioned Tom O’Bedlam’s Song and premiered in 1965 with cellist Joan Dickson (pianist Malcolm Martineau’s aunt). Here Tritschler is joined by cellist Philip Higham. The work sets an anonymous text from around 1600, a classic ‘mad song’. Bennett sets it using his serial technique, yet an elegant lyricism disguises this. The result has lyrical moments yet violent ones too, with the cello part seemingly almost independent from the voice. Bennett’s use of twelve-tone technique highlights Tom’s waywardness and unpredictability.

Largely self-taught as a composer, Geoffrey Bush doesn’t fit neatly into a particular school or clique, yet he wrote songs throughout his composing career. His Songs of the Zodiac were written in 1989 and dedicated to the memory of Pears and Britten. They were premiered by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson. The songs set poems by surrealist poet David Gascoyne (1916-2001), a Salisbury school friend of Bush. The songs are quirky and characterful, each one short and the composer dazzling with the way he moves through moods and emotions. Gascoyne’s poems sometimes describe the astrological character and sometimes the terrestrial character. The results are highly distinctive and strongly coloured, with the singer’s speaking of each title (something specified by the composer) providing an interesting punctuation.

There are other songs that could have been included on the disc, I would love to have heard Ronald Stevenson’s Border Boyhood (written for Pears in 1970). But the repertoire provides an indication of Pears’ range, whilst the first three cycles have that whiff of autobiographical reference which makes them all the more intriguing.

Tritschler sings throughout with great sensitivity allied to remarkable intensity and power. His attention to the words is paramount and I can think of few tenors who could manage to evoke Peter Pears’ remarkable attention to and sympathy for the text whilst remaining very much themselves. His finely partnered by Malcolm Martineau, bravely but winningly stepping into Britten’s not inconsiderable shoes, plus vivid performances from Sean Shibe and Philip Higham.

This is a disc that makes you think, something encourage by Tritschler’s extensive and highly intelligent booklet notes, but also satisfies as a recital in its own right.

Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) – Five Housman Songs (1940)
Lennox Berkeley – Songs of the Half-Light (1956)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) – Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940)
Arthur Oldham (1926-2003)) – Five Chinese Lyrics (1945)
Richard Rodney Bennet (1936-2021) – Tom O’Bedlam’s Song (1961)
Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998) – Songs of the Zodiac (1989)
Robin Tritschler (tenor)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Sean Shibe (guitar)
Philip Higham (cello)
Songs with piano recorded 24-26 September 2021, Wyastone Estate, others recorded 31 October 2021, St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn

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