Although he concentrated on English poetry for much of his song output, there are four mature song-cycles in other languages: Les Illuminations (French), the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (Italian) The Poet’s Echo (Russian) and the German Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente. The latter is perhaps the least well-known of the group but as Justin Vickers remarks in this week’s film, the cycle could easily stand its ground on the concert platform, even alongside the cycles of Schubert and Schumann. It has an introverted quality, but there are moments of great warmth and richness as well as playfulness. The vocal line is, as always, exquisitely-crafted; and the accompaniment has a beautiful economy of expression.
The Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente was composed for Britten’s great friend, Prince Ludwig of Hesse and performed for the first time at the Hesse’s home, Wolfsgarten near Frankfurt, in 1958. Britten and Pears recorded the cycle in 1962, not long before their wonderful recording of Schubert’s alte masterpiece Winterreise – a cycle Pears waited until his 50s to record. Both works share a melancholy beauty and sense of looking back, well-suited to the mellowness of Pears’ voice and the remarkable nuances of Britten’s playing.