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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Albert Herring (1947)

Albert Herring - Christopher Gillett (ten)
Lady Billows - Josephine Barstow (sop)
Florence Pike - Felicity Palmer (mezzo-sop)
Superintendent Budd - Robert Lloyd (bar)
Vicar, Mr Gedge - Peter Savidge (bar)
Sid - Gerald Finley (bar)
Nancy - Ann Taylor (mezzo-sop)
Mrs Herring - Della Jones (mezzo-sop)
Miss Wordsworth - Susan Gritton (sop)
Mayor, Mr Upfold - Stuart Kale (ten)
Northern Sinfonia /Steuart Bedford
Recorded Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996
NAXOS 8.660107-08 [2CDs: 64:10+77:09]

I did not take to Albert Herring when I first heard it. Listening to it again in the form of this recording of 1996, now re-launched by Naxos at bargain price, I have been somewhat disarmed.

My problem concerned the story which pivots on the one idea of a lad being elected May Queen because all the girls of the town have suspect moral credentials. Ho! ho! The tale is French in origin – a Guy de Maupassant story – which reminds me of a British television comedy serial many years ago that was set in a small French town. Again, there was only one idea. In this case it centred on the plans to erect (yes, I’m afraid the word was repeatedly used with obvious innuendo) a pissoire in the town square. It was desperately unfunny and deservedly bombed. Yet I met people who claimed thy fell about throughout.

Likewise, there are those who find Albert Herring a great laugh and more than once have I read it described as the finest English operatic comedy. Well let’s face it, there is not much competition. There are others who have attempted to raise the work’s status by investing it with depth of content, citing Albert as an example of one of Britten’s outsiders along with Peter Grimes, Owen Wingrave et al. And then there are the themes of liberation and lost innocence. Be such things as they may, they will not make the show any funnier.

Yet a great composer with a feeling for people and the stage is capable of turning unpromising material into something worthwhile if not inspiring. Take Così fan tutte, for example. Like Mozart, Britten, saves the day with keen characterisation enabled by music of wit and charm, beautifully wrought for chamber orchestral forces. The librettist, Eric Crozier skilfully transposes the story to Suffolk so can indulge themes of English hypocrisy, pomposity and small town parochialism, not mention the inevitable one of class.

This recording was made in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1996 with the city’s own orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia, a chamber ensemble tailor-made for this sort of music and they play magnificently. There is a crack British cast of huge collective experience and a real feeling of ensemble effort prevails. It is a studio recording (a suburban church in fact) and as a result I feel that the singers are attempting to portray their stereotypical characters with a particular vocal focus to compensate for the inability to be able to use acting and stage presence. This can lead to a tendency to over caricature but that will be a matter of taste. The main rival recording, a Chandos production made later in 2001 under Richard Hickox takes, on the whole, a more steady view of characterisation, aiming perhaps for a greater degree of verismo [see review]. There is a different but equally distinguished cast and the playing of the City of London Sinfonia is also excellent. One key difference though is the portrayal of the key role of Lady Billows. On the Chandos version this is Susan Bullock, who, although a budding Wagnerian, does not match the authority of Josephine Barstow’s performance on Naxos. Barstow takes the demands of pomposity, intimidation, stridency and occasional lyricism in her stride and at the same time maintains musicality. Her tendency to a wide vibrato, sometimes subject of criticism in some of her roles, works well in this part.

There are delicious moments. For example Lady Billows’ entrance towards the second scene of Act I, with entourage in tow – We bring great news to you - sounds like a triumphant military assault in Barstow’s portrayal. However Britten’s music, with its strumming harp chords just manages to avoid overdosing on ironic pomposity. One of the more remarkable passages from a characterisation point of view is in Act 2 where all the personnel are involved apart from Albert who is the passive subject of the proceedings at the start of a village banquet celebration in a marquee. Twelve people are involved. We go from a beautiful little duet between Sid and Nancy who are making preparations, through to the entrance of all the other characters and the beginning of the celebrations. Each person sings snippets supported by music that is designed to convey their individual characters. The vicar and Lady B swoon lyrically at the triumph of virtue (and the success of their own plans) to music of beauty without sentimentality. The children sing a brief celebratory hymn and all fall into chaotic chatter. In the space of a few minutes Britten composes a passage that copes with radical change of mood and pace while throwing in musical vignettes of the contrasting personalities. Yet it is seamlessly through-composed and maintains an inexorable forward momentum. This is a great operatic craftsman at work and the music is performed with a real sense of virtuoso ensemble.

The alternative Chandos recording, with a varying set of merits, is also distinguished enough to make it difficult to rank the two for overall performance. If cost-effectiveness considerations are important to you, then the Naxos production is such an opera bargain that it has to prevail. The recording quality is excellent although I sometimes found the singers a little too up-front but then it is a people opera. If, like me, you have reservations about the opera’s plotting, this disc could still enable you, like me, to be carried along by the infectious music and the sheer operatic craft of it all.

John Leeman

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