Songs (Pears, Britten)*

Schubert: Songs. Peter Pears/Benjamin Britten; DECCA



Britten is said to have been described by Stravinsky as “a very good accompanist”; no doubt a sotto voce insinuation, not to say a dim innuendo. Personally I’d put it much higher. Has any brighter binary than the Britten-Pears duo ever been observed, among all the leading lights of the lied? True, not all their zeniths are on record. They have also excelled in memorable concert performances of such songs as Schubert’s Der Winterabend or Wolf’s Frühling übers Jahr. Those works may sound poles (or at least solstices) apart; but they have significant climatic features in common. Each has one prevailing mood, defined by the piano, sustained by the voice, and enhanced by spontaneous interaction to a pitch of intensity that far transcends the ostensible subject of the song. Further, each draws on Nature for its images of human nature.

     This disc is (perhaps designedly) well programmed to repeat those triumphs. Many of the songs illustrate Schubert’s typical coloured soundscapes of winter and spring, despair and hope, tension and release; and many of their individual moments are vivid and poignant. Schubert and Vogl themselves must have sounded just so in concert; it was precisely their intuitive unity which (as Schubert duly reported) amazed and delighted contemporary audiences. The present match is hardly less striking, on occasion. But I missed the effect of sustained fire. There is one dazzling exception: Der Geistertanz, where the returning spirits really come to life throughout. But elsewhere I seemed to catch too many hints of caution or artifice, whether in the piano’s solicitous hesitations or in the voice’s occasional tendency to exaggerate natural phrases à la Fischer-Dieskau (thus “allein das Böse wirft man hin” in Der Einsame must surely have been meant to sound simple and natural, not rhetorical).

     There are some textual puzzles too. I can see why Mr Pears might have a personal penchant for Peters (as his text of Atys shows). But neither that edition nor the Gesamtausgabe sanctions an encore of the prelude to Sprache der Liebe by way of postlude. That admittedly charming piece of legerdemain is not explained by anything in the sleeve. On the contrary; the note-writer, who must have been just as surprised by this trick as I was, rightly stresses the prelude’s special relevance to the first line not the last, of the sole Schlegel strophe to be printed in Peters or performed here. Of course there is much to admire, even to marvel at – for example Britten’s playing of Der Einsame, where his meticulously judged staccato has the precise touch of scholarly detachment. But leading lights must be seen to give consistently good guidance; and it would surely have been even better if the performances had been much more carefree and the scholarship rather less so.


The Musical Times, Jan. 1976 (p. 43) © the estate of eric sams