Naxos continue to reissue the catalogue of
the late lamented Collins Classics label at their more attractive
price. This is cause for rejoicing as Collins was a label superb
in its quality of production and varied and eclectic in its
choice of repertoire. Particularly admirable was Steuart Bedford’s
ongoing project to record the works of Benjamin Britten, a composer
with whom he is most closely associated.
I have often contended
that there are times in which Britten’s own vast catalogue of
recordings of his own music did as much harm as good to the
progress of newer and different interpretations of the music.
It seems as though he and Pears’ word on the works has been
regarded as the definitive. I contend, however, that even the
composer can have but one idea about his music, and the glory
of the art form is in its ever-living and ever-present state
Now that both Britten
and his chosen interpreter Peter Pears have been gone for more
than twenty years, it is indeed time to reassess the music and
find new and equally interesting things to say about it, even
if it differs considerably from that which the composer and
his friend laid down on disc.
To that end, we
can be most grateful to Steuart Bedford and his circle of superb
musicians who have brought us these, dare I say, peerless interpretations
of three of Britten’s major works for voice and orchestra.
Opening with the
striking Serenade, a work that I believe is unmatched
in its perfection of the wedding between text and music. Right
from the first note, we know that we are in for something stunning
through Frank Lloyd’s breathtakingly flawless horn playing.
The haunting solo played on the horn’s natural harmonics and
thus sometimes sounding eerily “out of tune” is Britten’s ever-present
symbol of innocence. It is played to absolute perfection. Langridge
is a first rate interpreter of the vocal line as well, being
at times forcefully dramatic and downright frightening as in
“This-ae night;” agile and spirited in the “Hymn to Diana,”
and hauntingly beautiful in the closing “Sonnet.” This is by
far and away the very finest performance of this, one of my
favorite works to both hear and sing, that I have ever heard.
The gems keep appearing
in the Nocturne a work of similar vocal and orchestral
colors (albeit with the addition of winds and brass) and of
the same picturesque text settings that are typical of Britten.
Again, Langridge finds the meat of the texts, bringing out all
of the subtleties of the poetry with finely crafted, highly
refined vocal shadings and a lovely clarity of tone. It is also
noteworthy that Langridge can sometimes intentionally forsake
beautiful singing for its own merit to serve the texts when
they call for high drama. That is not to say that his singing
is ugly, it is just appropriately shaded as fits the needs of
Ann Murray is also
a formidable actress in the late cantata Phaedra, a work
dating from the last months of the composer’s life and originally
intended for Dame Janet Baker. Ms. Murray’s rich mezzo-soprano
is perfect for this woeful tale of inappropriate love and the
anguish that is causes its heroine. Of particular merit is Ms.
Murray’s ability to make the texts understood, a big challenge
in this work that spans the singer’s entire range and is often
doubled by strong and colorful orchestrations.
perhaps Britten’s greatest living interpreter provides absolutely
first-rate accompaniments to his soloists through the vehicles
of the English Chamber Orchestra and the Northern Sinfonia.
Bedford is in total sympathy with both the texts and the music,
and he completely understands Britten’s psychology and his mode
Round this disc
off with fine program notes and superb sound quality and you
have a must-have for any lover of fine singing. Recommended
without a moment’s hesitation.