Britten, his songs and Ian Bostridge


Britten’s vocal oeuvre is almost inextricably linked with one singer, Peter Pears. For many years they were partners, both in art and in daily life. For Pears, Britten composed his songs and operas, and with his voice in his head, he made arrangements of English folk songs. So it is not easy, especially for an English tenor, to add something new and unique without going to extremes.

Robert Tear was a champion at that, as were Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and John Mark Ainsley.
James Gilchrist, too, is the prototype of an English tenor. His voice is sweet and a little dry, just on the borderline between a character tenor and a lyrical tenor. He strongly pronounces the consonants without being obtrusive, and he plays nicely with the text. His approach really suits the songs. That I am not unreservedly enthusiastic about the performance is due to Gilchrist’s low notes, which sound a bit too baritonal. Not bad in itself, but there I notice a certain disconnection between the two registers.

Anna Tilbrook is an ‘absent’ accompanist – she leaves everything to the tenor, but maybe it’s down to the recording.
The songs recorded by LINN (CKD 404) in 2012 cover ten of Britten’s composing years: from 1937 to 1947. Britten was 24 when he composed the cycle On this Island. In 1947, he was still a young man, but because of what happened in those years, he became an “early adult”.


The Canticles were created over a period of more than 30 years and they do not form a real unity, although they have a few things in common: faith and (homosexual) love. They are wonderful songs, little operas really. Whether Ian Bostridge manages to live up to it all? At one time I thought so. When he just started singing, I thought his voice was beautiful and his diction and understanding of lyrics extraordinarily good. I have come back from that. His emphatic articulation has become more than annoying and his clearly audible enjoyment of his own voice is extremely irritating. It is a pity.

I also have some difficulty with the folk songs intended as encores, and that too is down to the singers. Christopher Maltman, despite his beautiful voice, is too neat and lacklustre, and David Daniels does not know what he is singing.

Ian Bostridge, David Daniels, Christopher Maltman
Timothy Brown (horn), Aline Brewer (harp), Julius Drake (piano)
Virgin Classics 5455252


And speaking of Bostridge… On 3 February 2009, Brussels’ De Munt gave a semi-concert performance of Britten’s Death in Venice at the RHC. The opera actually consists of one big monologue and the role of Gustav von Aschenbach is a real tour de force for a tenor.

Not so Ian Bostridge, for he sang and played mainly … being Ian Bostridge. Nowhere did he express any of an inner conflict. Was he at all confused by the infatuation that had suddenly come over him? It seems not; if he were in love at all it was surely only with himself. And there he stood, a slightly bored and blasé peacock, interested only in his own beautiful singing. He studied his nails extensively (even bit one off, I swear), for the rest he walked around a bit with his hands in his pockets. Did he even know what Britten’s razor-sharp and heartbreaking swan song was about?

But the rest of the cast was fantastic, with English baritone Andrew Shore leading the way. It was truly phenomenal how, with small steps and gestures, he could give shape to seven different characters and also colour them individually, so clever! The orchestra and choir (conductor Paul Daniel) were also fabulously beautiful.

More Death in Venice: Death in Venice: an autobiographical testament?

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