Phaedra is called a 'cantata' but might as well be
a highly compressed opera by a composer at his peak of genius
with little time left to him as his health collapsed.
It was written
for Dame Janet Baker and those unlucky enough to have missed
the premiere or a recording of it missed 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.
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.
with Jean Rigby conducted by Friend (see review)
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
The best performances
are in the cheaper range with the star recording surely being
the Elatus with the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson in her element.
The Hallé Orchestra are on accurate and thrilling form under
Kent Nagano driving the action from his deep understanding
of Britten's works and knowing the stakes regarding the soloist's
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. 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 correct this.
Bedford again on Naxos (8.557199)
with a Collins reissue from 1994 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 voice than Baker and Hunt-Lieberson. She is
more restrained than the latter in the passionate abandon department
but 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.
I suggest buying
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.
some great music in his last years and 'Phaedra' is perhaps
the best. Alongside ‘Phaedra’ is a 1943 work by Britten of
interesting form and history. ‘The Rescue of Penelope’ arose
from Edward Sackville-West’s BBC commission called ‘The Rescue’
to be aired on radio over two evenings. Britten was chosen
to write the incidental music for a fee of £100 – a large
sum in those days.
Given that Britten
had returned to the UK with little in his pocket he took on
the perceived “secondary role” with relish when he read Sackville-West’s
modernist version of Homer, which he thought was right for
his country at war.
CD notes describe how the BBC staff conductor Clarence Raybould
commented on Britten’s pacifism and the BBC Director of Music
(Sir Arthur Bliss) tried to make peace – after all Britten
had sailed back to Britain at the height of U-boat activity
and the composer said that he would complete the music out
of friendship for Sackville-West but would not have further
involvement as he would have normally done.
Britten also had
a bad attack of measles when the BBC Home Service rehearsed
the work. This was no trivial matter for a man with delicate
in November 1943 had some hostile criticism but George Bernard
Shaw (no less) was intrigued by Britten’s music as having
appropriate grace and originality without undue influences.
Britten fans will notice devices later used in ‘The Turn of
the Screw’, ‘Prince of the Pagodas’ and some of the best woodwind
and brass writing he ever did.
The subject of
being faithful, brave and loyal in the person of Penelope
ironically applied to Britten as the mud pies during production
were thrown at him. He made some changes to show Penelope
as more steadfast than heroic. I fancy that he was thinking
of his England after the war turned from pure self-defence
to not being deterred from a true purpose. Quietly right.
The separate work
of ‘The Rescue of Penelope’ as prepared by Chris de Souza
contains the basic shape of the BBC presentation. The Elatus
recording has a few edits of repeats which Cleobury’s 1993
premiere with Janet Suzman as narrator did not have. That
left it a bit ragged.
of Britten’s subtle orchestration is remarkable. Although
there are occasional wobbles by the soloists the real glory
is that the narrator is Dame Janet Baker with a northern orchestra
and a hint of her Yorkshire accent as a mature and sexual
woman just as Homer portrayed Penelope.
Music with a narrator
is notoriously risky – e.g. Copland’s Lincoln Portrait
and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex - but this CD presses
all the right buttons and the recording quality is quite good.
It nevertheless benefits from a mixer to bring up the middle.
On the whole it’s
a damned good drama but for Britten cognoscenti it’s a feast
of emerging genius in the expert hands of Nagano and the Hallé
in top form.