Album review

Britten: Songs

Britten: Songs

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Antonio Pappano, piano (EMI)

During Benjamin Britten’s lifetime, his partner, tenor Peter Pears, cast a long shadow over the performance of Britten’s vocal works, especially the many written for and dedicated to Pears. Perhaps we had to wait for his passing — in 1986, a decade after Britten’s death — before tenors, in particular, could feel truly free to explore this material. Perhaps Britten’s songs have simply established themselves firmly in the vocal repertoire. Whatever the reason, I am increasingly convinced we are living through a golden age of Britten singing, as recent releases by tenors Mark Padmore and Nicholas Phan have demonstrated.

That Ian Bostridge’s new Britten recording is superb should surprise no one; the British tenor has, over the course of his career, saved some of his most incisive singing and writing for Britten’s works and significance. Here he takes on three of the composer’s most important song cycles: “Winter Words,” “Michelangelo Sonnets,” and “Six Hölderlin Fragments.” Also included are selections from his penultimate group of songs, “Who are these Children?,” and the guitar-accompanied “Songs From the Chinese.”

These are very different sets, each with its own musical syntax and emotional layers — austerity in the Hölderlin, wariness of death in “Winter Words,” ardent passion in the Michaelangelo. Bostridge, though, penetrates directly to the essence of each. Over the years, his famously willowy vocal tone seems to have darkened and become more substantial, but the unique way in which he absorbs and expresses the texts’ meaning is thrillingly intact. Antonio Pappano does something similar at the piano, a fully equal partner rather than an accompanist. Xufei Yang is the resourceful guitarist in “Songs from the Chinese.”

David Weininger can be reached at