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.)