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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Albert Herring (1947) - an opera in three acts
Albert Herring…James Gilchrist (tenor)
Nancy…Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano)
Sid…Roderick Williams (baritone)
Lady Billows…Susan Bullock (soprano)
Florence Pike…Sally Burgess (mezzo-soprano)
Mr Gedge…Alan Opie (baritone)
Superintendent Budd…Stephen Richardson (bass)
Mr Upfold…Robert Tear (tenor)
Miss Wordsworth...Rebecca Evans (soprano)
Mrs Herring…Anne Collins (mezzo-soprano)
With Yvette Bonner, Rebecca Bottone and Gregory Monk
City of London Sinfonia / Hickox
Recorded at Blackheath Halls, London: 11-14 October 2001 DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10036(2) [2CDs: 72.30+74.57]

Although composed fifty years ago, about a rural society which existed fifty years before that, all is clearly recognisable even today. Lady Bountiful / Billows is alive and well and living in (deeply) rural England. The excitable local mayor and portentous vicar (now with a worthy Parish team) survive. The stolid local police superintendent and the twittering village schoolmistress have gone to an urban environment in the name of economy. Jack the Lad with his Moll and local children flourish. Society has changed, but most of the characters, apparently loved by librettist and composer for the gentleness of their mockery, abound in village and market town.

That we can share that affection for the characters on this set is in no small measure thanks to a taut Hickox control of some very fresh playing by the City of London Sinfonia. Although the crisp bright sound may be thought ‘thin’ I think that it is entirely appropriate as the sound of the rural scene.

The Orchestra almost develops its own role as master of ceremonies of the pastoral proceedings, particularly in some virtuoso solo and duet instrumental parts. I enjoyed particularly the flute and clarinet in the Interlude, painting the scene, before Albert’s decision to rebel.

Of course the problem with a rural society situation, is that if everyone sang in appropriate accents, most of us would understand very little. So instead of a Suffolk ‘burr’ everyone sings in good old dependable BBC English – and there is nothing wrong with that, until Lady Billows sounds like her housekeeper and sounds like her greengrocer. That lack of aural distinction is but a small price to pay for clarity of words.

Without departing far from that, Roderick Williams and Pamela Helen Stephen, as Sid and Nancy, catch almost perfectly the characterisation of the butcher’s assistant and the baker’s daughter. Here are the perfectly matched ‘plotters’. From his entry admonishing the children to the finale of giving the wreath to Albert, Williams never falters. There is an insouciance of sound which brings mischievous Sid sharply into focus.

He is matched note for note by Stephen. Hers is a more complicated characterisation which comes off superbly: from hesitant protagonist, through contrition, to indignant commentator on the village elders’ prurience in the last scene. I enjoyed enormously their duet (and trio with Albert) leading to "We’ll walk to the spinney…". This was excellent complementary vocal balance supported by just the right level of orchestral accompaniment.

Of course before we meet Sid and Nancy, the ‘polite’ society of Suffolk ‘set the scene’ for us in that splendid opening of English self-importance. Plenty of puffed up balloons here for pricking and with studied gently accuracy Eric Crozier (librettist) and Britten miss not a target.

Sally Burgess sings Florence, the all-knowing sergeant major of a housekeeper. There is a warmth of ‘mezzo’ here which she holds in check. She delivers her rejections of the nominees with clarity but perhaps not quite sufficient scorn.

Alan Opie’s round baritone as the vicar is the first example of luxury casting. As you would expect there is a roundness of superbly delivered and reasonably unintelligent compassion here. He seems to float his notes of suggested nominees for Sally Burgess to shoot down. His "Virtue, says Holy Writ…" is a highlight with delightfully accentuated rounded vowels, tonal colour and dynamics. His master of the coronation ceremony is carried off with just the same apparent effortlessness.

The superintendent is the deep bass of Stephen Richardson. A judicious slowness of delivery enables him to display the deep filling sound and maintain clarity of word. That does not disappear when he speeds up his delivery to profess his preference for ‘a decent murder’. The twittery teacher, Miss Wordsworth, sung by Rebecca Evans, is not an easy role – much of it spent in the higher reaches of the tessitura, making clarity of diction difficult. Unfortunately this is exacerbated occasionally by a tendency to replace forte with shrill. This is a pity because where piano applies there is a silkiness of delivery. Another potentially self-indulgent casting is that of Robert Tear as Mr Upfold, the self-important mayor. Tear’s recital of his administrative achievements is delivered with excellent vocal pomposity and if his participation in the Threnody is loud that is because that is the role.

It is precisely that problem which I think besets Susan Bullock. We learn from the curriculum vitae notes of the principal singers in the accompanying booklet that "she is rapidly establishing herself as Britain’s leading Wagnerian soprano". I refrain from comment on that as a statement of achievement; but its importance here is voice –type guidance. I would agree that there is a Wagnerian influence in the role as it is usually sung. Perhaps one-day some one will say: let us try the grand lady of imperiousness at piano rather than fortissimo. Meanwhile, accepting that this is what Britten intended, Bullock’s account is accurate if occasionally wayward in vowel pronunciation – now standard English, now Professor Higgins vowels. I am sorry to say that I found this Lady Billows unconvincing. The booklet refers to her as an elderly autocrat. Sadly there was little autocracy here and as I said earlier "sounds like Florence, sounds like Mum". At which point, and at the other end of the social spectrum, consider Anne Collins as Mum described merely as "possessive, narrow minded". There is acidity in her character and even a touch of brutal domination. Again none of that is readily apparent. The role is sung with total note accuracy but too much refinement: in "twenty five quid" the word "quid" jars, as a word that that voice would not use whereas plainly the greengrocer would use it.

All that leaves Albert and the children. The children have a difficult small role: sounding very young but singing some difficult sections, which are pulled off as well as anywhere. James Gilchrist sings Albert. His is a lighter tenor which goes well with the role. Consistencies of pronunciation and note accuracy are self evident in this slightly ‘flattened out’ version of the role. I would have preferred to hear a slightly greater accentuation of the dominated Albert in contrast with the freed Albert with more exuberance in the breaking out. Early on Gilchrist makes him sound as if he has made up his own mind to avoid sin rather than having his mind made up for him. However after the trio (with Nancy and Sid) he develops strongly in "He’s much too busy…" with a superbly delivered hopeless resignation of "for what". Gilchrist carries well the burden of Act II after the Interlude with what sounds like total sobriety when a modicum of excitement would have been helpful.

The ensembles are outstanding. There is an excellent balance of voices producing some quite delicious blends of sounds. I would pick out that at the end of Act I as my personal favourite whilst accepting that the Threnody runs it a very close second.

The excellent accompanying booklet with its translations reminds us of the International appeal of Britain’s favourite (?) opera composer of the last century. I thought the use of the picture by John Wimbush of A Vegetable Seller on a Street was an example of first class presentation and packaging.

In conclusion whilst having one or two less dramatic moments this recording has some particular strengths and is a very welcome addition to the Chandos library.

Robert McKechnie

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