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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]


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If I am brutally honest I will admit that I am not the best of persons to review Benjamin Britten's opera Albert Herring. Let me explain. I do not really enjoy his operas; they do not move me or turn me on. There - that is a bold and honest statement to make! Of course I have listened to, and sat through performances of Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw and A Midsummer Nights Dream. However, if I am frank with you, I did not really enjoy them. Now before someone accuses me of being a philistine for not enjoying these 'masterworks' let me state right away that I have always preferred chamber, piano and orchestral music to opera. I never cease to enjoy telling the story of the first time I went to hear Götterdämmerung at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. We endured the first act, went for a curry during the second and returned for the immolation. Horrified? Probably.

I do like much of Britten's music. At least as far as the 1950s. It then becomes less approachable … to me. My favourite works are the Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings and A Boy was Born. However the operas have never really hit the spot. I often feel it is a personal failing - yet we cannot like every genre of music with equal conviction. My saving grace is that I can recognise that a piece of music that is not exactly to my taste happens to be a masterpiece.

What is it that turns me off this music? Well perhaps it is the very thing that makes it an operatic success. Nothing seems to happen. There is a state of equilibrium in this work. Albert Herring has often been criticised for being too provincial, parochial and trivial in its subject matter to waste a couple of hours of precious listening time. Yet Albert appears to be popular with the opera-going population. Apparently it is one of the composer's most produced works. Now I must confess that I was bored to death by great swathes of this CD. Yet to be fair to the review it was important that I tried to give it my best shot. I followed the events using a piano score to avoid any day-dreaming or tendency to do something else - like watch the cat de-fleaing itself. I admit that there are not a few bits of this work that appeal to me. Some fine vocal phrases and fair number of felicitous instrumental melodies. However, with the best will in the world I have to say that it seems to take hours to say not a lot. I do not feel that I have engaged with the great verities of the world. It feels more like watching a soap opera rather than grand opera.

What is it all about? Well a review is not the place to give a full synopsis of the work. However, just in case someone is not up to speed on this opera I will give a few headlines:-

The local village carnival committee is trying to find a May Queen. They need her presence for the annual bash through the streets. However they are unable to find a suitable and virtuous young lady - so they make a bold decision and choose a boy! A May King (or is it really Queen?) this year. The youth chosen is the somewhat thick-witted Albert Herring who with his mother runs the local greengrocer's shop. Certainly he is innocent of the ways of the world. After botching his acceptance speech, he ends up with his lemonade spiked and so bolstered by alcohol and acclaim, disappears from the village. Naturally the villagers are concerned and worried about what may have happened to the newly confident and sexually aware lad. Eventually he returns in a sorry state and proceeds to tell the village elders and his mother what he thinks of them - much to the delight of the young folk. We assume that he has been naughty during his absence and probably no longer deserves the title of May King. And that's all folks!

Now to be positive. Although I am not moved by this music, I can understand why it is popular and can well recognise that it is a masterpiece - both as a work and in its presentation in this recording. The vocal style is declamatory. There are no arias as such, although occasionally two people agree to sing a couple of lines together. The libretto would work as a play as well as an opera. I always remember a few friends parodying modern opera.

'Good day Landlord.'

'What will you drink'

'A pint of Guinness and a bag of salted peanuts, please....

And so the text of their spoof ran on; everyday things presented as an art form. And this is of course what Britten is doing. He is presenting village life, warts and all. It is full of allusions to all kinds of local life and provincial attitudes. Witness the scene with Albert and Bill in the shop - just a recollection of everyday chit-chat. However there are deeper moments. Britten makes use of children's songs to emphasise innocence and perhaps loss of innocence - a recurring theme in the composer's music. Then there is the heartfelt music played when it is imagined that Albert has 'gone beyond recall.' (Edgar Marriot)

The characterisation is good too - and this is reflected in this excellent recording. Lady Billows is played superbly. She is, incidentally, alive and well in many parishes to this day. The local vicar is rather good, as is the 'twittering' schoolmistress. In those days the village was lucky enough to have its own policeman! Happy days!

Musically it is difficult to classify. I feel some of it is always about to go into Gilbert and Sullivanesque whimsy. Occasionally Kurt Weill springs to mind. It is certainly easier on my ears than Turn of the Screw or Owen Wingrave. Britten was somewhat innovative by putting the 13-piece band onto the stage - and this appears to work well. Steuart Bedford conducts the proceedings from a piano in full view of the audience.

The recording itself is fantastic. It is an all star cast - see above for the listing. This was an old Collins release from 1996 that Naxos has decided to re-issue. The conductor is able to control the cast and orchestra to a high degree. For enthusiasts of this opera every note counts; every word is important in building up a picture of rural life. And this is what Bedford achieves.

The CD comes with a complete libretto, which I believe is necessary to a full appreciation of this work. However I would have liked a little bit more info on the opera and its place in the Britten canon.

Altogether a great recording that reveals this work as the operatic masterpiece that it undoubtedly is. The fact that I personally did not enjoy it is neither here nor there. This is a great work, well presented and finely recorded. A must for all Britten opera enthusiasts.

John France

see also review by John Leeman



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