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Benjamin Britten, Robert Schumann

Janet Baker sings Britten’s ‘Winter Words’

1972. St Johns Smith Square, London
Janet Baker ended her 1972 recital at St Johns Smith Square with a rare performance of Britten's song cycle 'Winter Words'.
Composers Benjamin Britten, Robert Schumann
Singer Dame Janet Baker
Pianist Paul Hamburger
Genre Recital

Britten wrote Winter Words in 1953, between composing the operas Gloriana and The Turn of the Screw.  If Britten sometimes had uneasy relationships with his operatic librettists, his choice of texts for his song cycles was unerring – supported, no doubt, by the more literary mind of Peter Pears.  Britten had been given a volume of Hardy poems by Christopher Isherwood in 1949 and the cycle is set to eight of these works.  With Hardy’s bleak and melancholy disposition, his identification with the downtrodden and oppressed and his complexity of thought, he was a perfect fit for Britten.  Several of the poems touch upon the world of The Turn of the Screw, with its interplay between innocence and corruption.

Britten’s strengths as an operatic composer translate into his writing for songs and each of the songs in Winter Words is a mini-drama, with situations and personalities vividly portrayed.  These play out not only in the vocal line but in his writing for the accompanying piano, which has an illuminating clarity and descriptive immediacy.  All of this makes Winter Words one of Britten’s most approachable and moving song cycles.

Winter Words was written for Peter Pears and it has, until recently, been rarely sung by the female voice.  But Janet Baker brings all her great qualities to bear on it and makes the cycle very much her own.  I once interviewed Janet Baker about her work with Britten and I asked her what she most got from him.  She immediately replied: “The importance of words”.  And this recording vividly illustrates these lessons.  It is not just her care with clear diction, but the way she can subtly stress and inflect words and invest them with enhanced meaning through the music.  On top of this rare musical intelligence she has extraordinary emotional intensity and brings the cycle to a devastating close with the repeated, but superbly differentiated, cries of “How long”.  We end up in much the same place as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw, bewildered and spiritually crushed by the forces of the universe.

As well as being a great composer, Britten was also one of the master pianists of the past century.  He wrote very little work for solo piano, but if you go beyond the voice in his song cycles you find piano writing of the first quality, none more so than Winter Words.  In this recording Paul Hamburger matches Baker in his artistry – just listen to his playing of the rolling noise of the train and its whistles in The Journeying Boy and hear how they convey two very different emotional states in dramatic juxtaposition.  This is a special treasure in Music Preserved’s collection.

After wringing the sensibilities of the audience at St Johns Smith Square, Baker and Hamburger send them home soothed by a delicious interpretation of Schumann’s Der Nußbaum as an encore.

Richard Jarman
June 2024

Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)

Track 1:

Winter Words

  1. “At Day-Close in November”
  2. “Midnight on the Great Western” (or, “The Journeying Boy”)
  3. “Wagtail and Baby (A Satire)”
  4. “The Little Old Table”
  5. “The Choirmaster’s Burial” (or, “The Tenor Man’s Story”)
  6. “Proud Songsters (Thrushes, Finches and Nightingales)”
  7. “At the Railway Station, Upway” (or, “The Convict and Boy with the Violin”)
  8. “Before Life and After”

Track 2:

Encore

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

Der Nußbaum

 

This recording is part of a recital given at St Johns Smith Square on 9 October 1972.

The recording is in the Saul Collection at Music Preserved.

  • Dame Janet Baker
    Mezzo-soprano
  • Paul Hamburger
    Piano

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