Britten/Finzi, with Mark Padmore (Harmonia Mundi, through Ode Records)


Peerless tenor extends the Peter Pears legacy into a new century.

5/5 stars


One of Benjamin Britten's chief aims in his 1945 opera Peter Grimes was to restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliant freedom and vitality that had been curiously rare since the death of Purcell.

In fact, he had already achieved this, particularly in the 1943 Serenade for tenor, horn & strings.

Britten is at his most incisive here, in a work that many of us got to know almost note for note through the classic 1944 recording by tenor Peter Pears.

Mark Padmore's new account of the Serenade with the Britten Sinfonia under Jacqueline Shave makes all the right connections.

One is aware of the Pears legacy, but Padmore has a more extensive emotional range, especially in the setting of Blake's O Rose, thou art sick. A longish introduction features a searing horn solo from Stephen Bell over passionate strings; Padmore takes their lead and makes the song a veritable cri de coeur.

The goose-bump spookiness of This ae night stirs up tingles and chills while a setting of Ben Jonson's Queen and huntress has Padmore and Bell jousting and parrying in what sounds like an acoustically verdant pizzicato grove.

Britten's 1958 Nocturne is less well-known, with seven sleep-tinged poems, opening with a luscious take on Shelley's On a poet's lips I slept.

Padmore's sensitivity to Britten's lines and inflections is impeccable; moods shift and change while various instrumental soloists play their part in making the music spring alive.

Sarah Burnett's bassoon adds a sinister streak for Tennyson, while Lucy Wakeford's harp ripples prettily through a Coleridge tale of a boy plucking fruits. Scott Bywater's timpani crash and rumble through the nocturnal torments of Wordsworth's But that night when on my bed I lay.

The CD ends not with Britten, but Gerald Finzi, whose 1939 Dies Natalis takes us to a more mystical space.

The rapture promised in the title of its second song is there from the start; Padmore's welcoming "Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness?" proves an invitation impossible to refuse.