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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]



 

At least on disc, Frank Lloyd is a remarkably under-rated player in the UK, so it is good to have his Britten Serenade on disc as a reminder of his stature. The Prologue for solo horn is here truly beautiful - the sounding ‘C’ (the second pitch we hear) is perfectly placed, and every succeeding note is carefully placed. The flat natural harmonic (sounding D natural near the end) retains Britten’s intention as expressive effect; too often it just sounds out of tune.

Philip Langridge needs no introduction, of course. His sound is quintessentially English, his phrasing entirely natural. Hear how he liltingly teases the words, ‘A little, little flock’, for example. More importantly, the two soloists work well together, something particularly apparent in the second song, ‘Nocturne’, with the horn imitating a bugle’s calls and those calls’ echoes.

Of course there is a great feeling that this music ‘belongs’ to Peter Pears ... and Dennis Brain, for that matter. How laudable that Langridge makes the ‘hunting’ movement, paradoxically named ‘Hymn’, all his own. The nimble-tongued Lloyd makes the horn’s pyrotechnics, for such they are, sound easy.

It is true that this account does not plumb the depths of the aforementioned Pears/Brain account with the Boyd Neel String Orchestra (currently on Decca British Music Collection 468 801-2 coupled with Walton’s Façade). Langridge/Lloyd do not quite capture Britten’s all-important darker side … nevertheless this remains an involving, captivating performance.

The couplings are all-important, and Naxos offers the Op. 60 Nocturne and one of Britten’s most interesting scores, Phaedra. The Nocturne is a setting of eight poems by Shelley, Tennyson, Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare. Instead of one solo obbligato instrument Britten highlights different instruments to impart a distinct colour to each poet. The harmonic language is more advanced in this work, making the long, aching vocal lines even more demanding, a challenge Langridge rises to magnificently. There is wit here, too. The capricious, mock-evil ‘Below the thunders of the deep’, with its slithering bassoon representing the Kraken, is a lovely divertissement between the first movement and the hypnotic, harp-flecked third.

Britten’s aural imagination is the stuff of legend and nowhere is this as well demonstrated as in this movement, with its sparse scoring. The horn’s entrance, marking the beginning of ‘Midnight’s bells’ seems retrospectively inevitable, while in the context of the present disc links Op. 60 to Op. 31. This work demands more exposure in the concert hall, surely? The sheer aching loneliness of the cor anglais ‘She sleeps on soft, last breaths’ alone should be enough to make it register unforgettably in the memory. Throughout, the Northern Sinfonia loses nothing to the ECO. 

Phaedra, Op. 93, received a famous recording by Janet Baker - interestingly, with this orchestra and conductor; it is now appended to the present Decca incarnation of the composer’s own recording of The Rape of Lucretia on Decca London 425 666-2. The subject of forbidden love struck a chord with Britten, whose score (Britten’s last major work) is a masterpiece.

In her portrayal of the protagonist’s emotions, Ann Murray loses out to no-one. Her swooping lines at ‘Phaedra in all her madness stands before you’ (track 20) convey precisely that.

Throughout Britten tracks Phaedra’s shifting, desperate emotions unerringly. Bedford ensures the ECO is no less chameleon-like in its responses.

Superb music, expertly played, then. It is marvellous that the Collins catalogue is once more available; even more marvellous, of course, that it comes with a bargain basement price tag! 

Colin Clarke

 

 



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