Round Britten: the operas on disc

Last week, I finally got my hands on the new 50 pence piece the Royal Mint issued to commemorate Britten’s centenary, inscribed with lyrics from his ‘Serenade for tenor, horn and strings’. It’s appearance in my sticky paws is nearly as belated as this round-up of CD releases, which considers two new recordings of key Britten operas alongside a monumental Decca reissue of his complete operas.

Peter Grimes

peter-grimes_signumAnyone who braved the elements to watch ‘Grimes on the Beach’ in last June’s Aldeburgh Festival won’t forget it in a hurry. It was unequivocally my operatic event of the year, an experience, as I wrote at the time, “which will haunt my memory for decades”. In the queue to take my seat on Aldeburgh’s beach, it was already possible to purchase the recording made the fortnight before in the shelter and warmth of Snape Maltings, where the orchestral and choral score had also been taped for use on the seafront. Taken from a pair of concert performances, the first of which had been broadcast live by BBC Radio 3, these provide the perfect audio memento, albeit devoid of lapping waves and the mew of Aldeburgh’s formidable seagulls. However, the Snape recording – now issued by Signum – is more than a memento. It is an exceptionally well played, well sung performance and can happily stand alongside the best studio recordings of the opera.

The cast is uniformly excellent, right down to the smaller roles; a powerfully sung Bob Boles from Robert Murray and Gaynor Keeble making for a feisty Auntie, but never one prone to exaggerating for cheap effect. David Kempster makes for a sturdy, sympathetic Balstrode, while Giselle Allen, whose soprano was perhaps most compromised by the closely miked beach performances, emerges strongly on disc, with her superb diction and ability to encapsulate Ellen’s dilemma.

Ultimately, one’s reaction will depend on how you prefer your Grimes. Jon Vickers demonstrated that there was a very different way to present the Suffolk fisherman, a tortured Heldentenor portrait, dangerously explosive. Alan Oke gives us something much more akin to Peter Pears, the role’s creator, or perhaps to Philip Langridge. He presents a much more ‘normal’ man, struggling to express his feelings and often failing, yet capable of great poetry. In Grimes’ monologue “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”, Oke pares down his tenor to an other-worldly pianissimo, almost blanched in tone, that is most moving. His Grimes doesn’t rage wildly, but is confused and frustrated. It’s a believable and moving portrayal.

Off-stage contributions are perfectly balanced, such as when Rev Adams (Christopher Gillett) takes the church service or Hobson (Stephen Richardson) leads the men off to Grimes’ hut. There is some audible audience reaction, such as laughter at Mrs Sedley and Ned Keene, but nothing more intrusive than that. Steuart Bedford draws excellent playing from the Britten-Pears Orchestra, well supported by the Choruses of Opera North and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. This is as fine an achievement as the Beach performances, but in superbly engineered sound. Admirably, the booklet contains a full libretto, although the singers’ diction in the superb Snape acoustic is exemplary.

The Turn of the Screw

lso-live-turn-of-the-screwThankfully, a libretto is also included in LSO Live’s issue of The Turn of the Screw, as diction becomes muddied in the Barbican’s less than superb acoustic, mainly concerning one or two of the women in the cast. Otherwise, there is much to recommend in this concert performance, given just days after the death of Sir Colin Davis, the LSO’s Principal Conductor. Richard Farnes, of Opera North, did the honours on the rostrum and draws vital playing from the reduced forces of the London Symphony Orchestra, which brings the drama of Britten’s setting of Henry James’ novella vividly to life.

Sally Matthews’ warm, heavy-toned soprano is ideally strong for the Governess, beautifully phrased in long, clear lines with nary a wobble to be detected. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a suitably matronly Mrs Grose, but it’s the Miss Jessel of Katherine Broderick which is outstanding here, her full-toned soprano in glorious form. Wagner surely beckons.

The key role of Peter Quint is taken by Andrew Kennedy who, like most tenors on disc, also sings the Prologue. Kennedy’s bright tenor navigates its way through Quint’s music very cleanly, well executed melismata but without the sinuous beauty and danger that Ian Bostridge brings to the role on Daniel Harding’s Virgin set (with the superb Mahler Chamber Orchestra).

Lucy Hall sings the role of Flora impeccably, although the casting of an adult soprano as opposed to a girl means that the balance between her and the Miles of Michael Clayton-Jolly is occasionally problematic. The latter makes a good impression, perfectly in tune in the demanding ‘Malo’ song, although you never quite believe him when he tells the Governess, “You see, I am bad, I am bad, aren’t I?” The Turn of the Screw has been remarkably lucky on disc and this LSO Live recording is a worthy addition to its discography.

Britten: The Complete Operas

decca-brtten-operasIn the spring, Decca released its Complete Britten box, dividing up his oeuvre into four sections. Each has now been issued separately, which is how The Complete Operas ended up at Opera Britannia Towers shortly before Christmas. The word which best sums up the recordings in this remarkable collection is ‘authoritative’, for all of them bear the ‘first commercial recording’ or ‘first studio recording’ stamp and the majority of them are conducted by Britten himself, who enjoyed a long relationship with Decca.

They are often cast with singers for whom he wrote the roles, none more so than the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner and muse. His distinctive, nasal tenor isn’t universally adored and I shall freely admit to preferring other singers in some of these roles, but his is the voice Britten composed so much music for and his readings have the greatest authority. We’re used to hearing heavier, darker tenor voices as Peter Grimes, for example, whose minds unravel with greater ferocity, but Pears’ plangent delivery of “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” is enormously moving and his fisherman is also something of a dreamer. His Captain Vere, distant and aristocratic, is one of his most successful roles, bettered only – in my view – by his Peter Quint, an instance where his other-worldly sound is perfectly suited to the role. Indeed, the complete recording of The Turn of the Screw is terrific, from the sympathetic Governess of Jennifer Vyvyan to the unsurpassed Miles of David Hemmings, full of dark secrets and inner meaning. The 1955 recording is in mono, but the playing Britten draws from the 13-strong English Opera Group Orchestra (all named in the accompanying booklet) oozes vitality and precision.

Some of Pears’ portrayals sound a little dated – his Albert Herring doesn’t sound too comfortable in this comedy and I’ve heard tenors have more fun in the role – but his Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice is remarkable. By this stage, Britten was too ill to conduct, so Steuart Bedford took the reins to record this final opera. Pears’ excellence is matched by John Shirley-Quirk’s assumption of the septet of baritone roles, full of malice, menace and dark humour. James Bowman’s counter-tenor is full-bodied and not quite as ethereal as the Voice of Apollo as others who followed, but this 1974 recording is essential listening.

Decca’s casts are mostly very strong. Billy Budd features Peter Glossop as an heroic Billy, while Michael Langdon’s Claggart sends a chill down the spine, his sepulchral bass and biting diction never bettered on disc. Indeed, the HMS Indomitable is crewed by a splendid cast, right down to Robert Tear’s Novice and Owen Brannigan’s Dansker, the Ambrosian Opera Chorus full-throated in the call to arms when the French are sighted.

Claire Watson’s Ellen Orford graces a strong Grimes cast, although James Pease’s Balstrode never comes across too vividly. Britten’s handling of the orchestral score here is marvellous, perfectly pacing the Sea Interludes and Passacaglia, the Decca recording (remastered as are the others in this set) emerging fresh and full of detail. The casting of The Rape of Lucretia features Janet Baker on sublime form, with Pears and Heather Harper as the Male and Female Chorus; their narration “She sleeps as a rose upon the night” is bewitchingly beautiful.

The 1966 recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a less successful quartet of lovers (Pears here as Lysander rather than the role of Flute which he took at the premiere), but the fairies are very special – Alfred Deller as Oberon, Elizabeth Harwood as Tytania and Stephen Terry’s mischievous Puck – and the Mechanicals, led by Owen Brannigan’s bumbling Bottom, have a tremendous time. I’m surprised there isn’t more competition on disc for this opera – currently only studio recordings under Richard Hickox and Colin Davis are available and both variably cast – so this first recording still has a strong claim.

The rarities in this box include Owen Wingrave, Britten’s anti-war television opera, which doesn’t hold this listener’s interest for long despite Benjamin Luxon’s beautiful singing of the title role. Paul Bunyan fares much better. Britten’s operetta appears in this box licensed from Virgin Classics in the excellent recording conducted by Philip Brunelle otherwise out of the catalogue at the moment. Singers are of the musical theatre rather than overtly operatic variety and that sits very well with the style of Britten’s score. Another non-Britten conducted recording comes with Gloriana in its first – and as yet only – studio recording under Charles Mackerras, originally released in Decca’s Argo series. It features Josephine Barstow as Queen Elizabeth I, in just as fine and fierce voice as she was when she assumed the role for Opera North, from which a DVD survives (although of an incomplete opera, Opus Arte cutting some of the music and featuring several backstage shots as an almost ‘mock’ documentary). Philip Langridge is a dashing Earl of Essex, backed up by a fine cast. The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera is recorded in full-bodied splendour.

The 96-page accompanying booklet includes casts, dates and track listings, with a useful track-by-track synopsis of each opera by George Hall, along with a ten-page overview of Britten’s operatic output by Andrew Huth. Staunch Brittenites will already have most, if not all, these recordings on their shelves, but to those coming to the composer’s operas afresh, this box is a pretty good place to begin your explorations.

Peter Grimes (Signum, 2 discs) SIGCD348
The Turn of the Screw (LSO Live, 2 discs) LSO0749
Britten: The Complete Operas (Decca, 20 discs) 478 544 8

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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