BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): Young Apollo, Op. 16; Lachrymae, Op. 48a; Prelude and Fugue, Op. 29; Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31—Allan Clayton, tenor; Richard Watkins, French horn; Máté Szücs, viola; Lorenzo Soulès, piano; Aldeburgh Strings; Markus Däunert, director [Recorded at Snape Maltings, Snape, Suffolk, UK, 20 – 22 October 2012 (Lachrymae, Prelude and Fugue), 24 – 25 November 2013 (Serenade), and 4 April 2015 (Young Apollo); Linn Records CKD 478; 1 CD, 55:02; Available from Linn Records, ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
 GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759), THOMAS ARNE (1710 – 1778), WILLIAM BOYCE (1711 – 1779), and JOHN CHRISTOPHER SMITH (1712 – 1795): Where’re You Walk – Handel’s Favourite Tenor [A programme of music composed for or sung by John Beard (circa 1715 – 1791)]—Allan Clayton, tenor; Mary Bevan, soprano; The Choir of Classical Opera; The Orchestra of Classical Opera; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded in All Saints Church, Tooting, London, UK, 15 – 18 September 2015; Signum Classics SIGCD457; 1 CD, 68:59; Available from Signum Classics, ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
It may seem counterintuitive, daft, or even provocative to suggest that the foremost thrill of the human voice is its innate propensity for disaster, but is the mountain climber exhilarated more by how far up he manages to go or by how far down it is to the doldrums of mundane, earthbound life? A perverse component of the mystique of Maria Callas is the realization of proximity to failure: listening carefully to her ‘live’ recordings reveals that the precarious, barely-sustained notes on high were often more vociferously cheered than the full, easy ones, the conqueror rewarded. It is the prospect of a performance going wrong that establishes the perspective that promotes enjoyment of all that goes right. In the haze of brilliantly-combusting imperfection, singers who quietly plot their own paths to self-sufficient artistic grace are often, exasperatingly, in peril of disappearing into the shadows. A good-humored, unpretentiously handsome gentleman who has intimated that he would just as happily be a match-saving footballer, English tenor Allan Clayton is no Ivory Tower-dwelling, platitude-spouting Artist. With a trophy-earning striker’s balance of natural ability and unwavering discipline, he possesses a Champions League-worthy voice and an uncanny ability to find the goal despite every conceivable complication on the pitch—and with imperturbably certain pitch! Philosophy suggests that the profusion of ugliness in this world is necessary in order to give meaning to the recognition of beauty, and the same conceit can be extended to music. With this pair of very different but remarkably compatible discs, their content separated by two of the most decisive centuries in the history of Western music, Allan Clayton eschews the notion of pontificating on why he is among today’s finest singers and simply sings in accordance with his gifts. Whether tackling the penalty kicks of Benjamin Britten’s angular writing in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings or the roll and cut reverses of arias from the great operas and oratorios of Georg Friedrich Händel’s tenure in London, Clayton restores to the vocal recital disc a focus on the singer’s voice rather than his ego. That a particular excitement of voices is their variability is what makes a singer like Allan Clayton so special: fantastically reliable, each successive phrase of his singing impresses anew. If full appreciation of the contrast of a singer like Clayton with the ranks of more ordinary troubadours means that profusions of mediocre discs must be endured, what a minuscule price this is to pay for these superb Linn and Signum Classics recordings.
Setting the stage for Clayton’s performance of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, the Linn disc, distinguished by the sonic quality for which the label is rightly celebrated, opens with beautiful performances of Britten’s Young Apollo (Opus 16), Lachrymae (Opus 48a), and Prelude and Fugue (Opus 29). Interestingly, Britten suppressed the score of Young Apollo after its 1939 première by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation forces for which it was commissioned, and the piece, inspired by John Keats’s unfinished epic poem ‘Hyperion,’ was not performed again until 1979, three years after the composer’s death. As performed here by Aldeburgh Strings and pianist Lorenzo Soulès, whose adroit handling of the prickly writing for the keyboard is commendably unaffected, it is difficult to imagine that Britten would object to the piece’s reinstatement to the repertory.
Director and concertmaster Markus Däunert leads the Aldeburgh musicians in comfortably navigating the harmonic channels of Lachrymae, a series of variations on the principal theme of John Dowland’s song ‘If my complaints could passions move’ in which the familiar melody of Dowland’s ‘Flow my tears’ is also sampled. Lachrymae was written in 1950 for viola virtuoso William Primrose and revised in 1975 for violist Cecil Aronowitz, at which time the original piano part was reimagined for string orchestra, producing the version performed on this disc. Máté Szücs, principal violist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, proves an excellent exponent of the piece in this performance, drawing from his instrument tones that recall the glowing-amber timbre of the Guarneri viola preferred by Primrose throughout much of his career. Here, too, Däunert and the Aldeburgh Strings musicians follow the composer’s meanderings expertly, the sinuous textures of the music sometimes reminiscent of the ethereal writing for strings in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The melancholy that colors Dowland’s songs is subtly evinced by Szücs’s noble phrasing and soothed by Däunert’s insightfully-gauged support.
Composed in 1943, the Opus 29 Prelude and Fugue for strings in eighteen parts is an aptly unsettled bridge between the other works on the disc and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, the composition of which it immediately followed. The Prelude is played with the gravitas that the music demands, each musician clearly attentive to the importance of her or his part to the Prelude’s shifting tonalities and the crucial violin solo lines beautifully realized by Däunert. Performance of a fugue with an unique part for each of the eighteen instruments, a device familiar from the polyphonic masterpieces of Thomas Tallis, requires extensive resources of concentration, rhythmic precision, and uninhibited cooperation. This performance displays an abundance of these resources, the Aldeburgh Strings producing detailed, engaging vignettes that unite in a complex but marvelously coherent musical mosaic. Throughout this traversal of the Fugue, the inventiveness of Britten’s contrapuntal writing is evident. Though not as widely-known as his Simple Symphony and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for similar forces, the Opus 29 Prelude and Fugue constitute one of Britten’s most accomplished works, a distinction made audible in the performance on this disc.
It is no coincidence that horn soloist Richard Watkins occupies the Dennis Brain Chair on the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music. Continuing the legacy of Brain, at whose suggestion the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings was composed in 1943, whilst Britten convalesced from a serious bout with measles and concurrently toiled on the libretto for his opera Peter Grimes, and Barry Tuckwell, with whom Britten recorded the Serenade two decades after its première, Watkins acquits himself impeccably in this performance of the Serenade. His easy command of the horn’s infamously tricky natural harmonics, exploited to chilling effect by Britten, is nothing short of remarkable, but the technical mastery of his playing never overwhelms its innate expressivity. Especially in the Serenade’s Prologue and Epilogue, entrusted solely to the horn, Watkins rises to the challenges of Britten’s music spectacularly, producing a stream of even, accurately-pitched tones that fully expose the genius of the composer’s writing for the instrument.
Not surprisingly, the vocal part in the Serenade was written for and first performed by Sir Peter Pears, Britten’s partner in life and music and the muse for whom the composer created a succession of the finest tenor rôles in Twentieth-Century opera. With his opening phrase in ‘Pastoral,’ his elocution of Charles Cotton’s text shaped by an audible sensitivity to Britten’s use of consonants as rhythmic markers, Clayton establishes himself as a triumphantly worthy successor to Pears. The serenity with which the younger tenor delivers the line ‘The shadows now so long do grow’ ideally complements the yearning discord lurking within the music. Lord Tennyson’s words in ‘Nocturne’ are articulated with equal comprehension, the contrasting open and closed vowels in the lines ‘O love, they die in yon rich sky, / They faint on fill or field or river’ enunciated with clarity that enhances the gnawing harmonic complexity of Britten’s setting. With a haunting text by William Blake, ‘Elegy’ is among its composer’s most poignant inspirations, its vocal line so meticulously sculpted for Pears’s sinewy voice that even speaking the words in time to the music seems to recreate the graceful whirr of his singing. Clayton’s voice is both more beautiful and more secure throughout the range than Pears’s, but the forthrightness with which he limns the distress of lines like ‘O rose, thou art sick’ recalls Pears’s interpretive perspicuity.
The anonymous text drawn from the Lyke-Wake Dirge melds with Britten’s music in ‘Dirge’ with a sensual desolation that gains pathos from the sincerity with which Clayton sings ‘If even thou gavest hosen and shoon.’ Like all of its companion movements in the Serenade, ‘Hymn’ receives from tenor and musicians a reading of unflappable musicality and intelligence, their seamless collaboration yielding extraordinary dividends. Here, too, Clayton’s use of text, in this instance by Ben Jonson, heightens the impact of the composer’s harmonies, so carefully crafted to complement the nuances of the words, not least in the passage beginning with ‘Earth, let not thy envious shade.’ Tapping the vein of melody in John Keats’s verse, ‘Sonnet’ inspires singer and musicians to starkly persuasive, startlingly lucid music making, the sting of the lines ‘Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards, / And seal the hushèd / Casket of my Soul’ surging from the disc. In the Serenade and in Britten’s music in general, the foremost pleasures are almost always found in the dialogues among artists instigated by the intimacy of even his most expansively-constructed scores. Forcing nothing, Clayton and his colleagues here converse with the camaraderie of beloved friends. Is this not the truest essence of what music is meant to achieve?
Likely born in 1716 or 1717, only a few years after the death of the heirless Queen Anne ended the Stuart dynasty and settled the English crown on the heads of the German-speaking Electors of Hannover, the tenor John Beard was not only one of the most renowned singers of the Eighteenth Century but was also one of the few lower-voiced singers who managed to snatch leading, heroic rôles in operas and oratorios from the gilded throats of castrati. That he earned the respect and endorsement of a man as particular as Georg Friedrich Händel is indicative of the tremendous quality of Beard’s voice and the integrity of his artistry. As a gentleman of the Commonwealth might suggest, though, the proof of Beard’s importance to Eighteenth-Century British music is in the pudding, and the music composed for or adopted by Beard constitutes a deliciously rich concoction. After hearing the selections on this Signum Classics disc, it is perplexing to note that programmatic exploration of repertory associated with Beard has heretofore been rare. Not merely owing to its subject is this disc unusual, however: here, too, Allan Clayton offers singing of a caliber that both discloses his own skills and highlights the accomplishments of the composers whose music he sings. How might one better pay homage to a legendary artist of the past than by performing music that formed his artistic identity with fresh insights and imagination?
Neither Thomas Arne nor William Boyce is as appreciated by Twenty-First-Century listeners as his talents and fame in Eighteenth-Century Britain merit, but Beard was more generous with his gifts than modern-day observers are with their attention. Anyone who has heard the familiar strains of the chorus of ‘Rule, Britannia’ in a film or television score has encountered Arne’s music, perhaps unknowingly, and the composer’s Artaxerxes was one of the most successful English operas of the Eighteenth Century, its notoriety having been so great that it was during a performance of the Metastasio-derived Artaxerxes that rioters chose to destructively object to an ill-timed elimination of discounted tickets. The air ‘Thou, like the glorious sun’ is indicative of the quality of the score, and the performance that it receives is indicative of the quality of Clayton’s singing on this disc. Every note of the music and syllable of the text are given their due, and Clayton phrases with a poet’s feeling for words. The Sinfonia prefacing Part Two of Boyce’s masterful 1742 oratorio Solomon introduces a sequence of beautifully-written numbers that give credence to the reputation that the composer enjoyed among his contemporaries. Clayton sings both the recitative ‘My fair’s a garden of delight’ and the air ‘Softly rise, o southern breeze’ contemplatively but with unmistakable histrionic thrust. The superbly-trained voices of the Choir of Classical Opera deliver ‘Ye southern breezes gently blow’ rousingly, the balance among parts absolutely ideal and the words cleanly articulated.
Born in the Bavarian town of Ansbach, John Christopher Smith followed his father to London and into service to Händel, for whom he was copyist and, after the older composer’s blindness prevented him from leading public performances of his own music, conductor until Händel’s death in 1759. Though not on par with the quality of his employer’s scores, Smith’s surviving works reveal charm and well-crafted vocal writing and instrumentation that bear the stamp of Händel’s influence. In the delightful air ‘Hark how the hounds and horn’ from Smith’s 1755 opera The Fairies, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Clayton sings with the boyish playfulness of Puck, the aristocratic elegance of Theseus, and the romantic ardor of Demetrius and Lysander. Smith asks nothing of the tenor that he cannot supply with panache, and his buoyant rhythmic accuracy conveys all the enchantment of the text and the opera’s plot.
Taking full advantage of the unfailingly period-appropriate but never pedantic support of the Orchestra of Classical Opera and conductor Ian Page, the selections by Händel constitute a fascinating explication of the working relationship between the master composer and one of his most trusted interpreters. Clayton provides precisely the jubilant spirit and musical exuberance that the delightful air ‘Tune your harps to cheerful strains’ from Esther requires, and his Italian diction proves no less vibrant than his native tongue in his impeccably stylish performance of the aria ‘Sol nel mezzo risona del core’ from the too-seldom-performed Il pastor fido.
The winningly dovetailed seriousness of purpose and youthful energy that made their recent account of Mozart’s Il re pastore one of the finest opera recordings of recent years distinguish the Classical Opera personnel’s dramatically-charged playing of the Sinfonia that opens Act Two of Ariodante. Following Page’s lead, Clayton voices the daunting aria ‘Tu vivi, e punito’ thrillingly, his bravura technique as impressive as his handling of more introverted music. The recitative ‘M’inganna, me n’avveggo’ and aria ‘Un momento di contento’ from Alcina could hardly make a greater contrast, and the tenor’s poised vocalism fills the long-breathed lines of ‘Un momento di contento’ exquisitely, the simple beauty of his timbre highlighting the communicative power of Händel’s genius. No less noteworthy is Clayton’s singing of ‘Vedi l’ape che ingegnosa’ from Berenice. In this aria, too, his affinity for musical storytelling is wonderfully apparent.
If there is a more euphonious recorded performance of music from the Eighteenth Century than Clayton’s account with radiant-voiced soprano Mary Bevan of the duet ‘As steals the morn upon the night’ from Händel’s 1740 John Milton-inspired ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, there are no words adequate to describe it. In reality, mere words are sorry company for Clayton’s and Bevan’s singing, as well. There is an almost erotic tension in the serpentine intertwining of their voices, and the singers effortlessly match flawless intonation with unobtrusive vibrato. In the recitative ‘Let but that spirit’ and air ‘Thus when the sun from’s wat’ry bed’ from Samson and the recitative ‘’Tis well, my friends’ and air ‘Call forth thy pow’rs, my soul, and dare’ from Judas Maccabaeus, Clayton’s tones ring out magnificently, his commands of dynamics and tonal shading enlivening every bar of the music. The same is true of his performance—and, make no mistake, it is a wholly thought-out performance, not a strictly-for-the-microphone studio run-through—of the air ‘Hide thou thy hated beams, O sun, in clouds,’ the stirring accompagnato ‘A father, off’ring up his only child,’ and the grandiloquent air ‘Waft her, angels, through the skies’ from Jephtha. The many wonders of these pieces and the sublime air and chorus ‘Happy pair’ from Alexander’s Feast pour forth from Clayton and his Classical Opera colleagues with boundless finesse.
Jupiter’s ‘Where’re you walk’ from Händel’s Semele is surely the best-qualified candidate for the dubious distinction of being the Baroque aria for tenor as hackneyed as the Duca di Mantova’s ‘La donna è mobile’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto and Calàf’s ‘Nessun dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot. Like those later tunes, it has been sung by virtually every tenor of the past three centuries, regardless of familiarity with the requisite style. Beard sang Jupiter in Semele’s 1744 première, but the rôle might have been tailor-made for Clayton. As the younger tenor sings it on this disc, the aria is wholly the amorous, hypnotic number that Händel clearly intended it to be, an oasis amidst Semele’s calamities, conflicts, and conniving. Framing the air with a pointed reading of the recitative ‘See, she appears,’ Clayton devotes an appealing lightness to the familiar music. Throughout this recital, Clayton honors traditions by looking beyond them, honoring Beard by singing music familiar to him with precisely the commitment and adroitness that surely endeared the illustrious tenor to Händel.
In the three centuries since the birth of John Beard, Britain has produced a number of fine tenors, among whom Gervase Elwes, Heddle Nash, Alexander Young, Richard Lewis, John Mitchinson, Stuart Burrows, Ian Partridge, and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson have been some of the most renowned. The rightly-lamented Rolfe-Johnson finds in Allan Clayton’s lustrous, lyrical vocalism a legitimate heir, but these discs confirm that, artistically, Clayton is his own man. Nearly fifty years ago, Mama Cass Elliot entreated us to ‘make your own kind of music,’ to find our own ways even among the too-trodden ways of the past. How much there is to enjoy in these recorded products of Allan Clayton having taken that advice to heart!
Man with a Händel on Britten: Tenor Allan Clayton [Photo by Laura Harling, © by Allan Clayton/Maestro Arts]