Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady
If this doesn't give you the creeps...

A Perfect Recording?

Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor Solo, Horn, and Strings, Op 21; Les Illuminations for Tenor Solo and Strings, Op. 18.
Peter Pears, tenor; Dennis Brain, horn; The New Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugene Goosens. London LL 994

Clearly, the use of the word "perfect" requires some justification and explanation. What I mean is that this is great music, performed and recorded in such a way that I can't really imagine it done better. If you don't care for Britten's music, or for these particular pieces, then obviously this can't be considered a perfect recording. But I do like the music, very much. And the performances seem to me to be perfect in the sense of being ideally suited to the music. And the sound is about as good as one could expect for 1944, when this LP was issued; moreover, it has a living quality which can be absent from more technically sophisticated recordings. (It's from the Fr. Dorrell trove, by the way, described in this post.)


Whenever I talk about classical music I feel obliged to note that I am no judge of performances. If it's devoid of obvious mistakes, I think it's ok. Still, I think this one is ideal, even though I suspect that someone really knowledgeable about singing might find some things to criticize in Pears's performance. I at any rate find his performance here very effective.

Is it great music, in the sense that, say, the Goldberg Variations are great music? Perhaps not. On second thought, in fact, I'll say no, I don't think it is. But I'll let critics of the future worry about Britten's place in the tradition. It's distinctly "modern," although not defiantly so; it demands no theoretical knowledge or an ear that's capable of tracking a twelve-tone motif (if that's the right word). What I mean is that it's accessible to me, and I think to anyone, in the sense that it isn't abstract--atonal and dissonant.

Les Illuminations is a set of prose poems (a dubious term, but never mind that for now) by Rimbaud. I was in a mild sort of way an enthusiast for his work in my youth. If I spoke French I might have been more enthusiastic, but at any rate I was drawn to his quasi- (or proto-) surrealist visions. Here's a sample, from "Cities," one of the pieces Britten sets:

Cities indeed! This is a people for whom those Alleghanies and Lebanons of dream were staged! Chalets of crystal and wood that move on invisible rails and pulleys. Old craters circled by colossi, and palm-trees of copper roaring melodiously in flames. Feasts of love resound, on canals that hang there behind the chalets. The hunt of chimes cries in the gorges. Guilds of gigantic singers flock among robes and oriflammes dazzling as the light on the summits.

Britten uses seven of these in his work, with a sort of refrain drawn from one of them, "Parade": "I alone hold the key to this savage parade." Fortunately I still have the New Directions translation that I bought when I was in college, and it includes the French. You really need something like that to fully enjoy the work, unless your French is good enough that you can understand the sung text. You can read the entire work in English at this useful site, Poetry In Translation

The other work, the Serenade, is also a setting of poems, this time in English and by several different poets. One of them, the poem of Tennyson which we know as "Blow, Bugle, Blow" is titled "Nocturne," but really the whole thing is a nocturne. The opening horn solo almost inevitably and irresistibly evokes sunset, and all the poems are related to evening and night. I haven't made up my mind yet which I like best (not that I need to), but I think most people would find the eerie "Lyke-Wake Dirge" among the most striking of the settings.

Thanks to YouTube, you can hear this work, and even hear this recording, so I don't need to try any harder to describe it.

(If you are reading this months or years after I posted it, you may well find that the video is gone. That's the way it is with YouTube.)


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It's a classic, for sure. I think the Serenade is one of Britten's greatest pieces, and ranks with the best of 20th century music. I'm less enthusiastic about Illuminations, which I've always found a tough nut to crack. Could be because it's in French.

I haven't listened to this Britten/Pears collaboration for quite a long time. My own favourite recording of the Serenade is the one Ian Bostridge made with Simon Rattle. Bostridge has made a bunch of Britten recordings over the years, and for me he and Britten go together like peaches and cream. Here's a clip:


That's beautiful. The quality of the recording is way better, and there's something to be said for that. :-) Could be that the old LP atmosphere is marring my judgment.

I really don't know that much of Britten's music. He's been on my get-to-know-better list for some years now, but I haven't gotten to him. I probably wouldn't have been listening to this at this time if I hadn't been trying to work my way through those newly acquired boxes of LPs.

Alex Ross devotes a lot of space to Peter Grimes, which I haven't heard, and which his praise didn't make me want to hear. It just doesn't sound like a very interesting. much less enjoyable, story. Not wacked-out like Wozzeck, just sort of bleak.

It is pretty bleak, but it's a good opera. I saw it live once, which has perhaps helped me to appreciate it more than I would just from a recording. But the music is memorable, and the characters are too.

There are a number of highly regarded recordings of it, including a recent one, but my favourite is the one with Jon Vickers in the lead role. Some people think he's just too much, too big -- Britten himself thought that -- but there's something mesmerizing about that performance for me.

This doesn't really make any sense, but I find it difficult to imagine memorable music with that story. I mean, certainly it's sad, but it seems more a story of petty meanness and ugliness than anything grand enough to inspire great music. I'm sure you're right, and this is just my quirk.

Here's a link to the synopsis for those who don't know they story and don't care about spoilers.


Hey Mac, I think that LP probably dates from the 50's, as there were no LP's yet in 1944. Could be that's when it was recorded though, which means that it originally may have appeared on 78's.

Oh yeah, it's definitely from the '50s. Just a careless mistake on my part: there are two Pears/Brain recordings, one from 1944, not long after the premiere, and one from 1953. This is the 1953 one. Thanks for catching that.


I listened to this again last night, just the Serenade, and thought it may not be *quite* perfect.

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