Peter Pears, Tenor (1910-1986)
John Nicholson Ireland (1879-1962) Song cycle THE LAND OF LOST CONTENT
after poems by Alfred Edward Houseman (1859-1936)
Song No. 1: The lent Lily
Song No. 2: Ladslove
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), piano
My personal opinion: At all times there were singers who could not be measured by ordinary standards. The english tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986) was such a specimen. His voice was peculiar, and his repertoire mainly focused on the works of Benjamin Britten. Pears was always a controversial singer, and his reputation in the world of music is not easy to describe.
After training as organist, he studied voice at the Royal College of Music in London. While a member of the BBC Singers, he met Britten in 1936. Soon later he became his life partner and inspiring muse. Pears' voice lacked almost everything we usually associate with a tenor: Warmth, radiant high notes and sensuality. It was a voice made for oratorios (his evangelist in two recordings of Bach's ST. MATTHEW PASSION is legendary) and - on the operatic stage - for fragile and broken heros. He was not the right tenor for exposing hilarity and enjoyment of life. In place of a golden sun in his singing was silvery moonlight.
For many critic's, his voice was colorless, even dry. And some did not hesitate to use the word 'ugly'. Anyway, for Britten it was the ideal instrument to express his intentions in many operas, concert pieces and songs. Peter Pears' voice was small, the projection was short. The microphone reinforced some flaws: The sometimes acetic sound, the whining, the fissures of sustained notes. Occassionally his expression was contoured excessive. His recording of Schubert's WINTERREISE is more caricature than interpretation, just like an imitation of a performance. The english critic John Steane wrote: "That's all right, as long as you don't call it singing!" Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012), a friend of Pears and Britten, wrote in his book 'Nachklang': "Britten always had problems to live in accordance with the world, but he did not show it to anyone. That's the reason, why his music was full of darkness". Apparently Pears was the right performer to expose these darkness and pessimism. Was it meant as a compliment, as one reviewer wrote, that Pears has always been good at madness? Many times, Pears' singing was memorable, but rarely pleasant. In Britten's THE TURN OF THE SCREW, the Prologue begins with two simple lines: "It is a curious story. I have it written in faded ink". The ambiguos expression of Pears' voice leaves no doubt, this will not be a funny story! Or his PETER GRIMES: A poor figure, a broken outcast among a bigoted society. He desperately tries to hide his homosexuality, and he even gave a marriage promise to a young woman. When Pears as Grimes orders his young apprentice "Go there!", it rather sounds like "Stay here with me!" Jon Vickers (feared among colleagues for crude homophobic jokes) chose the contrary way, and erased all sexual allusions. Britten was shocked by this attempt and refused the performances of the canadian tenor. Fortunately, homosexuality in art is no longer a taboo subject. Just imagine the terrible mental conflict of a famous gay russian tenor, who was married six times and even gave birth to a daughter - and all this in fear of sanctions in Stalin's russia. Homosexuality is an element we can find evidently and subliminal in many operas (even in works of Verdi and Puccini), and especially in Britten's PETER GRIMES, THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE DEATH IN VENICE. An alternative interpretation ignores the facts and destroys the composer's intentions.
Pears' singing was like a quiet inner monologue. The reflexion of a tormented soul, a lament and an accusation at once. In a jolly song, sung by Pears, it seems the joy is only a facade. And behind this facade, the feeling of desperation is evident. For example: The happiness of the first songs in his famous recording of DIE SCHÖNE MÜLLERIN seems downright faked, almost like a mockery. Pears' performance is near to a parody or - better - sarcasm. For his fans, this reading is a sign of declamatory intelligence. For his detractors, Pears' singing is ridiculous. There is nothing in between. Peter Pears (knighted in 1978) left us mixed impressions, and the fact remains: He was a singer outside of usual standards: Strange, unconventional and unique. Whatever you may think about Peter Pears, he has demonstrated, that every moment of joy also has bittersweet aspects. For me, Pears was the perfect male counterpart to Kathleen Ferrier, and (to use the title of a song collection by Henry Purcell) a true ORPHEUS BRITANNICUS.
Sir Peter Pears died 1986, ten years after Benjamin Britten.