Britten’s Serenade presents a sort of history of English poetry, from 15th-century verse through to Blake and Tennyson, so clear diction is the key to bringing the words to life musically.
Tenor Mark Padmore doesn’t disappoint.The Serenade was composed for the composer’s life partner Peter Pears and the great horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. Their 1953 recording with maestro Eugene Goossens (Decca/Eloquence) remains the definitive version, but Padmore and the Britten Sinfonia have plenty of fresh insights almost 60 years on.
I’m also a fan of the late Anthony Rolfe-Johnson on Chandos. Padmore doesn’t quite match Rolfe-Johnson’s light, limpid gait in the florid Hymn, but his lean, muscular tone, sweetened with generous vibrato, has more immediate drama throughout.
The shimmering Sinfonia strings show finesse in the music of their namesake, while the appropriately named Stephen Bell provides energetic, richly shaded phrasing and precise intonation on horn.
Britten’s darker Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings (1958) shows even more stunning invention from the master of orchestral colour. Most noteworthy are the sinister bassoon and crisp pizzicato of the second movement, delicate harp in the third and the arrestingly powerful timpani solo in the fifth.
With so many Serenades in all-Britten programs, the sweeping romanticism of Dies Natalis by his countryman Gerald Finzi makes for a nice change of pace and a sort of palette cleanser; worth having for Padmore’s refined reading of the anthem-like Salutation aria that so beautifully closes the cycle, and the album.