It was a very good idea to make a recital programme entirely from the work of the greatest of England’s song cycle composers. This concert featured four Britten cycles of which only the Michelangelo Sonnets of 1940 are given often. The other three cycles come from 1937, 1947 and 1965, and there were four different singers and voice types – soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone. The overused term ‘gala’ was justified.

Louise Alder
© Gerard Collett

On this Island, to poems by Auden, was written for soprano Sophie Wyss, who also premiered with Les Illuminations and Our Hunting Fathers – only one of the four cycles on the programme was written for Peter Pears. Certainly the first song lay ideally for Louise Alder’s bright penetrating soprano. The faux-Baroque of Let the florid music praise! reminded us Purcell was Britten’s god. Once told by his teacher John Ireland to stick to one note per syllable, young Britten doubtless enjoyed the mischievously melismatic writing so relished by Alder, who also showed great technical control in the slow pulse of Nocturne, and provided strong characterisation of the text, singing of the “revolting succubus” as if there was a nasty smell nearby. I wanted to hear more from her, but that was true of each of the four singers.

Christine Rice had pulled out only at the start of the day, we learned, and it was fortunate indeed that Jennifer Johnston, no less, was the very last-minute stand-in for A Charm of Lullabies. She could therefore be forgiven for muddling the text of Sephelia’s lullaby, for otherwise this rising mezzo did not disappoint. She sang as if the cycle had been composed for her gleamingly incisive sound, rather than for what Britten called the “chocolatey voice” of Nancy Evans (his first Nancy in Albert Herring.) In the easy and seductive The Highland Ballou of Robert Burns, Johnston was enchanting, drawing on some inner Celt in negotiating the dialect as well as the notes.

After these two delightful and fairly undemanding cycles – for the audience at least – in the first half, the second half raised the bar. The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo were written for Pears and perhaps represent Britten’s finest love music (not a type especially abundant in his output). Allan Clayton gave what could be called a “post-Pears” interpretation, his direct and unfussy manner a contrast to Pears’ use of his voice to find a nuance within every phrase. Of course, Clayton has a quite different sound, ringing and virile with good dynamic range. There was some intimate mezza-voce too in Sonnet XXXI (though the two high As gleamed superbly), and caressing control of the legato in Sonnet XXX. The final song’s address to the poet’s love, Spirto ben nato was as passionate as could be wished, noble in its ardour. This was the first of a nine-event Wigmore exploration of Britten this season and Clayton features in all but two of them.

The evening’s descending voice types ended with the only cycle Britten wrote for baritone, the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. James Newby managed the strange and cumulative menace of the cycle with gravity, though without the hectoring vocal manner of the great DF-D of the mid-1960s. For a young singer he did a fair impersonation of an Old Testament prophet. There was plenty of angry tone in The Chimney Sweeper and The Poison Tree (‘I was angry with my friend’), but in the latter he also deployed honeyed soft tone at “And into my garden stole/When the night had veiled the pole”. The Tyger had a steadier tempo than usual, and to its advantage. James Baillieu, the excellent accompanist throughout the evening, was here most clearly an equal partner, as these ambiguous songs, gnomic proverbs and the linking piano part are played without pause. The fierce concentration from singer and pianist communicated so intensely as to make one re-evaluate this least ingratiating of Britten’s cycles, as a fine performance sometimes does. It made an ideal, thought-provoking close to this superb opening occasion to the Wigmore season, which was live-streamed and is now on the hall’s website.