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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Orchestral Song-Cycles vol. 2
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31a (1943) [22:57];
Nocturne, Op. 60b (1958) [26:35];
Phaedra, Op. 93c (1975) [14:57].
abPhilip Langridge (tenor); aFrank Lloyd (horn); cAnn Murray (mezzo);
acEnglish Chamber Orchestra, bNorthern Sinfonia/Steuart Bedford.
rec. acHenry Wood Hall, London; bSt Nicholas, Newcastle, July 1994. DDD
Originally released on Collins Classics in 1994. Texts included.
NAXOS 8.557199 [64:29]

 

 

 

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. 

Hyperion's version 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 Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. 

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 Naxos CD.

Without detracting 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.

The Nocturne 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.

His versatility 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.

Stephen Hall

see also Review by Colin Clarke

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