The title of this disc is a slight misnomer because Phaedra
is not a song-cycle but was described by the composer as
a ‘cantata’. It might as well be a highly compressed opera.
It is by a composer with his health collapsed yet at his peak
of genius and with little time left to him.
It was written for
Dame Janet Baker and those unlucky enough to have missed the premiere
or a recording of it missed a glory which the Decca CD (with The
Rape of Lucretia) fails to capture. Steuart Bedford did his
best to rally the ECO troops in the studio and Dame Janet was
on great form but it simply falls short of what might have been.
It plods along - like Lowell's clumsy translation of Racine -
and the harpsichord is too far forward to make it sound real.
Furthermore, Decca's cynical policy of sticking Britten recordings
together at full price occurs here as awkwardly as the Billy
Budd package where the great opera runs for just a few minutes
on CD1 before getting to the rest.
of Phaedra with Jean Rigby conducted by Friend shows Miss
Rigby near her best but the direction and orchestra are less than
friendly and there is a confused air in the ensemble which lets
the soloist down. The recording is also vague.
The best performances
are in the cheaper range with the star recording surely being
the Elatus with the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. She is in her
element with the Hallé Orchestra on accurate and thrilling form.
Kent Nagano drives the action from his deep understanding of Britten's
works and knowing the stakes regarding the soloist's health. This
full-blooded performance reminds me of Dame Janet's world premiere
because the character of Phaedra is a woman in middle age crazy
about her son-in law so the part needs maturity but also guile
in her royal court. Dame Janet achieved this live but the studio
recording remains a disappointment. The Elatus recording lacks
some focus and the Shostakovich-like skeletal percussion in the
final bars is muffled; a good mixer can emphasise it.
Enter Steuart Bedford
on this Naxos CD with a Collins (1994) re-issue featuring the
Irish Ann Murray as Phaedra, a fresher ECO and far better recording
than Decca managed. This time we hear the intricate subtleties
of Britten's wondrous orchestration.
Ann Murray has a lighter
mezzo than Baker and Hunt-Lieberson and is more restrained than
the latter in the passionate abandon department. Murray picks
up the 'foxy' nature of the historical character (as Baker did
live) and is utterly thrilling in a different way from the late
For Phaedra I suggest buying both the Elatus and
the Naxos but maybe borrowing the overpriced Decca from a
library until someone who has a good recording of Dame Janet live
can find a label to release it in the face of copyright tyranny.
However, readers expect reviews to be in order so I now come to
the Serenade as the best known piece on this superb
from the qualities of the 1944 and 1950s recordings with dedicatee
Dennis Brain the reference point for this work must be the Decca
stereo version from 1964. It has real authenticity with Pears
being joined by Barry Tuckwell in the horn part and by the LSO.
A younger Pears
in those earlier recordings has more vigour than in 1964. However
the essence of the work is texture and, for me, Tuckwell has
greater subtlety than Brain quite apart from the limited dynamic
range of those pre-1960s recordings.
Pears’ vocal style
puts some people off. Langridge on this disc certainly uses
his more nasal tone but from a far greater range than Pears
ever had. His take on the Dirge is as good as it gets with some
lower harmonics that suit the orchestration. Otherwise he follows
the Pears tradition except for a gorgeous departure in the Keats
Sonnet movement which shows an understanding of Keats which
I miss in all other tenors.
Readers will expect
a comparison with the Bostridge versions (1999 and 2005) and
I shall only say that the EMI version is let down by sub-standard
horn playing and vague conducting. The Rattle BPO version finds
Bostridge sounding more interested in diction than understanding.
A performer should never get in the way of the music.
Langridge with Bedford,
Frank Lloyd on horn, even ‘pips’ Tuckwell for accuracy and the
ECO simply loving the session really shows. These qualities
are what makes this recording so important.
is described as being a bit difficult, even on
MWI pages, but I place it above the Serenade for sheer
satisfaction in Britten’s orchestration, innovation and perfection
in word-setting. This is a neglected work of genius set in a
penumbra but it is a nocturnal piece.
My review would
be far too long if I described why each movement is so important
and we are comparing versions on record so can forget all other
contenders (some bizarre) and boil it down to Britten’s own
Decca version with Pears against Langridge, the Northern Sinfonia
and Steuart Bedford.
In fact it isn’t
a competition at all because Bedford was Britten’s deputy in
the composer’s last years so what we have here is a continuation
of a tradition up to a point. That said Steuart Bedford is not
a Britten clone. In the Nocturne he pulls more out of
the orchestra, soloists and texture than Britten did and Bedford
has the luxury of Langridge’s exact pitching as well as the
wider voice this work needs.
Pears is a bit light
against the lower obbligato instruments whereas Langridge simultaneously
has more push and subtlety, e.g. in the Wordsworth movement
against Britten’s masterly timps.
is also demonstrated in the Keats movement with glorious woodwind
but whereas Pears skated over this Langridge and Bedford go
a lot deeper.
My only disappointment
- very picky - is in the last (Shakespeare Sonnet 43) movement
because Britten’s Decca engineers got a good thump from the
bass drum after the brief string introduction. Collins/Naxos
ignored the importance of this stroke.
It’s only my opinion
but by drawing all forces together in that last movement I believe
that Britten wanted people to listen hard for the very good
reason that Sonnet 43 is dense and is written in oxymoron form
(look it up). The composer’s brilliance is to use that last
movement as a move from night to light.
The tenor part is
passionate and although Pears-with-Britten Decca achieves the
passion it does not quite match the ambiguity of the poem. Langridge
and Bedford achieve this in a more gradual build up. We can
read the sonnet and wonder if the ‘dreamer’ fell asleep after
his revelation of love with doubt. The quiet close of the ‘Nocturne’
leaves us guessing.
see also Review
by Colin Clarke