Centennial of Peter Pears a welcome reminder of English tenor's contribution to vocal art
In a year that has already had some notable anniversaries -- the bicentennials of Chopin and Schumann, for example -- I had to take notice of one more, this one on June 22. It's the 100th anniversary of the birth of Peter Pears, the elegant and eloquent English tenor who died in 1986.
He never had -- he couldn't have had -- the fame of a Pavarotti. His voice lacked the vibrant warmth or clarion ping that typically excite the general public, and his repertoire did not include the big operas that help tenors win popularity. But those of us who fell under the spell of Pears felt mightily rewarded just the same.
He was such a sublime communicator, especially when singing the music written expressly for him by his longtime partner, Benjamin Britten, one of the 20th century's greatest composers. Pears was an essential component in most of Britten's operas, creating the title roles in "Peter Grimes" and "Albert Herring," not to mention Captain Vere in "Billy Budd" and Aschenbach in "Death in Venice," among others. The tenor's voice left its mark as well on the Britten's "War Requiem" and so much more.
The combination of his distinctive timbre, superb articulation and incisive phrasing put Pears in a rare class. Today's singers -- not just tenors -- could learn a lot from his example. Here's a taste of the Pears artistry, captured in a bit of Schubert and a folk song arranged by Britten, who's the accompanist in both videos. And, since I don't think Pears would have minded too much, I appended a little comic relief from Dudley Moore, who nails Pears and Britten in a single burst of parodistic brilliance: