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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Rescue of Penelope
(1943) [35:68]
Phaedra (1975) [14:57]
Janet Baker (Narrator) Lorraine Hunt(Phaedra)
narrator, Alison Hagley, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, John Mark Ainsley, Lorraine Hunt, William Dazeley
Hallé Orchestra/Kent Nagano
rec. BBC Studio 7, Manchester, 22-23 April, 4-5 November 1995.
WARNER ELATUS 0927490102  [51:25]


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Britten's Op.95 Phaedra is called a 'cantata' but might as well be a highly compressed opera by a composer at his peak of genius with little time left to him as his health collapsed.

It was written for Dame Janet Baker and those unlucky enough to have missed the premiere or a recording of it missed glory which the Decca CD (with The Rape of Lucretia) fails to capture. Steuart Bedford did his best to rally the ECO troops in the studio and Dame Janet was on great form but it simply falls short of what might have been.

It plods along - like Lowell's clumsy translation of Racine - and the harpsichord is too far forward to make it sound real.

Furthermore, Decca's cynical policy of sticking Britten recordings together at full price occurs here as awkwardly as the Billy Budd package where the great opera runs for just a few minutes on CD1 before getting to the rest.

Hyperion's version with Jean Rigby conducted by Friend (see review) shows Miss Rigby near her best but the direction and orchestra are less than friendly and there is a confused air in the ensemble which lets the soloist down. The recording is also vague.

The best performances are in the cheaper range with the star recording surely being the Elatus with the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson in her element. The Hallé Orchestra are on accurate and thrilling form under Kent Nagano driving the action from his deep understanding of Britten's works and knowing the stakes regarding the soloist's health.

This full-blooded performance reminds me of Dame Janet's world premiere because the character of Phaedra is a woman in middle age crazy about her son-in law. The part needs maturity but also guile in her royal court. Dame Janet achieved this live but the studio recording remains a disappointment.

The Elatus recording lacks some focus and the Shostakovich-like skeletal percussion in the final bars is muffled; a good mixer can correct this.

Enter Steuart Bedford again on Naxos (8.557199) with a Collins reissue from 1994 featuring the Irish Ann Murray as Phaedra, a fresher ECO and far better recording than Decca managed. This time we hear the intricate subtleties of Britten's wondrous orchestration.

Ann Murray has a lighter mezzo voice than Baker and Hunt-Lieberson. She is more restrained than the latter in the passionate abandon department but Murray picks up the 'foxy' nature of the historical character (as Baker did live) and is utterly thrilling in a different way from the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson.

I suggest buying the Elatus and the Naxos but maybe borrowing the overpriced Decca from a library until someone who has a good recording of Dame Janet live can find a label to release it in the face of copyright tyranny. 

Britten wrote some great music in his last years and 'Phaedra' is perhaps the best. Alongside ‘Phaedra’ is a 1943 work by Britten of interesting form and history. ‘The Rescue of Penelope’ arose from Edward Sackville-West’s BBC commission called ‘The Rescue’ to be aired on radio over two evenings. Britten was chosen to write the incidental music for a fee of £100 – a large sum in those days.

Given that Britten had returned to the UK with little in his pocket he took on the perceived “secondary role” with relish when he read Sackville-West’s modernist version of Homer, which he thought was right for his country at war.

The excellent CD notes describe how the BBC staff conductor Clarence Raybould commented on Britten’s pacifism and the BBC Director of Music (Sir Arthur Bliss) tried to make peace – after all Britten had sailed back to Britain at the height of U-boat activity and the composer said that he would complete the music out of friendship for Sackville-West but would not have further involvement as he would have normally done.

Britten also had a bad attack of measles when the BBC Home Service rehearsed the work. This was no trivial matter for a man with delicate health.

The broadcast in November 1943 had some hostile criticism but George Bernard Shaw (no less) was intrigued by Britten’s music as having appropriate grace and originality without undue influences. Britten fans will notice devices later used in ‘The Turn of the Screw’, ‘Prince of the Pagodas’ and some of the best woodwind and brass writing he ever did.

The subject of being faithful, brave and loyal in the person of Penelope ironically applied to Britten as the mud pies during production were thrown at him. He made some changes to show Penelope as more steadfast than heroic. I fancy that he was thinking of his England after the war turned from pure self-defence to not being deterred from a true purpose. Quietly right.

The separate work of ‘The Rescue of Penelope’ as prepared by Chris de Souza contains the basic shape of the BBC presentation. The Elatus recording has a few edits of repeats which Cleobury’s 1993 premiere with Janet Suzman as narrator did not have. That left it a bit ragged.

Nagano’s command of Britten’s subtle orchestration is remarkable. Although there are occasional wobbles by the soloists the real glory is that the narrator is Dame Janet Baker with a northern orchestra and a hint of her Yorkshire accent as a mature and sexual woman just as Homer portrayed Penelope.

Music with a narrator is notoriously risky – e.g. Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex - but this CD presses all the right buttons and the recording quality is quite good. It nevertheless benefits from a mixer to bring up the middle.

On the whole it’s a damned good drama but for Britten cognoscenti it’s a feast of emerging genius in the expert hands of Nagano and the Hallé in top form.

Stephen Hall


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