> John Gay - Benjamin Britten - The Beggar's Opera [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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John GAY (1685-1732) Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Beggar’s Opera

Philip Langridge – Macheath
Anne Collins – Mrs Peachum
Robert Lloyd – Peachum
Ann Murray – Mrs Peachum
John Rawnsley – Lockit
Yvonne Kenny – Lucy Lockit
Nuala Willis – Mrs Trapes
Christopher Gillett – Filch
Declan Mulholland – Beggar
Orchestra and Chorus
Steuart Bedford
Recorded Snape Concert Hall 1992
DECCA BRITISH MUSIC COLLECTION 473 088-2 [2 CDs 108’25]


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Decca’s reissue of the Gay-Britten Beggar’s Opera has dispensed with the valuable notes that accompanied its original appearance and instead gives us just the bare synopsis of the plot. This shouldn’t deter those who have yet to experience this arrangement first performed by the English Opera Group in 1948. Performances since have been sparse and other realisations have taken their place on disc to dilute interest in Britten’s genuinely fruitful exploration of the theatrical life of the Beggar’s Opera, and one which can rightfully now be seen to take an assured place in Britten’s musical development and not, as was once the case, as some kind of kitsch jeux d’esprit. As for those other performances the unvarnished "original" Beggar’s Opera comes from Jeremy Barlow on Hyperion; Richard Bonynge, also on Decca, has a stellar cast. But this first recording, directed by Steuart Bedford receives in almost all respects a performance of vigour, intelligence and wit. Britten’s technique keeps the ear constantly engaged, spicing the work with piquant turns of phrase and intriguing sonorities; the sheer variety of means available to him to spice the score is considerable, whether harmonic or rhythmic and the joy is that so much is so alive and endearing.

The chamber orchestra comprises a band of twelve instrumentalists. Each has some opportunity to vest the score with their own personal distinction and with musicians of the quality of cellist Jonathan Tunnell, flautist Jennifer Stinton, oboist Nicholas Daniel and Richard Watkins who plays the horn, and all their distinguished colleagues, Bedford has an ensemble of superior plays to deal with. Harry Christophers is the chorus master, in charge of an excellent chorus of fourteen, and the dialogue has been generally well managed. It’s very difficult, as we all know, to match speaking with spoken voices in productions of this kind and it would not be true to say that this has been a complete success – but failures are relatively few and equally of relatively little significance. The singers are often excellent, though none overplays their hand. Robert Lloyd is commendably forthright as Peachum and Langridge mellifluous and elegant as Macheath. There are far too many delights to note individually but I will mention the tang and zest of the overture, the ardent mockery of My heart was so free – as much Britten’s as Gay’s – and the riotous percussion of Fill ev’ry glass – an interesting instance where Britten and Gay fuse together in an act of mutually advantageous creativity. This feature is further demonstrated in If the heart of a man is depressed with cares where the pirouetting and trilling solo violin adds a seductive feminine voice to the musical argument – and Langridge’s head voice, incidentally, is deployed to superb effect. The utility of the solo instruments is exhibited in the immediately succeeding Youth’s the season made for joys where the solo violin, so feminine and wily, now transforms itself into a raucous and aggressive folk fiddle in support of a carousing aria. The gentleness, aggression and multiplicity of feelings invoked by Britten are nowhere more obvious than in maybe the most beautiful moment of the opera, the chorus Cease your funning, with its shimmer of brass and harp, violin accompaniment and poignant chorus. Depth is present as well – listen to Macheath’s O cruel, cruel case – which is of prescient interiority. So much, in fact, is reflective as much of Britten as of Gay and this recording is entirely worthy of the undertaking and, a decade on, still wholly recommendable.

Jonathan Woolf


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