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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Phaedra: dramatic cantata for mezzo, harpsichord, timpani, percussion and strings Op. 93 (1975) [15:51]
Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland for solo viola and string orchestra Op. 48a (1950) [12:51]
Sinfonietta for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello and bass Op. 1 (1932) [14:00]
The Sword in the Stone: Concert Suite for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, harp and percussion (1939) [9:45]
Movement for Wind Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon and horn (1930) [7:55]
Night Mail: end sequence - for narrator, flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, harp, violin, viola, cello, bass and percussion (1936) [4:14]
Jean Rigby (mezzo); Roger Chase (viola); Nigel Hawthorne (narrator)
The Nash Ensemble/Lionel Friend
rec. 20-22 November 1995, 2 February 1996, Henry Wood Hall, London DDD
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55225 [65.21]

 

An excellent Hyperion reissue on the Helios label, this disc includes some of Britten’s lesser-known but typically brilliant works, such as Phaedra and The Sword in Stone, as well as some very early works, and the much-loved Lachrymae.

Phaedra, which was written for Janet Baker, is a cantata for soprano solo, strings, percussion and harpsichord, and the words have been taken from Robert Lowell’s verse translation of Racine’s Phèdre. It is a powerful, dramatic and moving work, and this recording brings out those qualities well. Rigby has a deep, rich, mature voice that suits the piece well. She faces competition on the Elatus label from Lorraine Hunt with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano (later in the same year, curiously enough!), and it is the Warner Elatus disc (0927490102 coupled with The Rescue of Penelope) that I marginally prefer – Hunt comes across as slightly wilder and more impassioned than Rigby does here. Another good recording that you might across is with Ann Murray on Naxos along with superlative performances of Serenade and Nocturne with Philip Langridge. Again, I slightly prefer Hunt’s interpretation, and her heavier voice and more intense and passionate touch works better for me than Murray’s shriller and lighter yet more sinister air.

Lachrymae is probably the best known work on the disc. It is a set of variations on the opening part of Dowland’s song If my complaints could passions move, and is here played in its later version, the piano part rearranged by Britten for strings. There are many different recordings of this work, and this is certainly one that I can recommend, with a brilliantly sympathetic string orchestra, and radiant viola solo from Roger Chase, quite virtuosic in places, and suitably dark and intense.

The Sinfonietta for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, harp and percussion was written when Britten was studying under John Ireland at the Royal College of Music, and is an amazingly accomplished work for his age. The Nash Ensemble’s vibrant, lively playing shows off the young Britten’s skills well.

In 1939 the BBC commissioned Britten to write the incidental music for a dramatic version of T H White’s novel The Sword in the Stone, about King Arthur’s youth. Britten plays around with references to Wagner throughout the work – most notably in the Bird Music movement, whilst the Lullaby I find almost reminds me of Shostakovich in parts! The work is a suitable combination (given the subject matter) of playfulness and enchantment. A delightful work, and extremely well performed.

Two movements exist of Britten’s early attempt at a wind sextet – in which he employs the usual wind quintet combination with an added bass clarinet. This disc includes the first movement only, which was completed while he was still at school at Gresham’s in Norfolk. Precocious is surely the only word to describe this highly atmospheric work!

In 1936 Britten collaborated with W H Auden to produce the music for Night Mail, a documentary made in 1936 about express trains. It is a stunning work, and makes a good end to the disc, although I would sooner have had the second movement of the wind sextet and left Night Mail to another disc, to be presented in its entirety rather than just the final sequence. The work brings up an image of the train chugging along and the people whose lives it will touch, painting an extremely vivid picture. The words and music work brilliantly, to deeply moving effect. If you are in the slightest nostalgic this will bring a lump to your throat! Nigel Hawthorne narrates superbly in an extremely evocative performance.

This is a disc I can wholeheartedly recommend. The pieces are well-chosen - slightly unusual but all the more welcome for that, and the sensitive, characterful performances are of a consistently high standard. The notes and presentation are good, although I was surprised to see the artistic director listed along with the performers on the disc cover – what other ensemble lists their managing or artistic director on the back? Otherwise, this disc cannot be faulted.

Em Marshall

Note from Dr Stephen Hall:-

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 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. She is in her element with the Hallé Orchestra on accurate and thrilling form. Kent Nagano drives 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 so 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 but a good mixer can emphasise it.

Enter Steuart Bedford again on Naxos with a Collins (1994) re-issue with 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 and 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.

Stephen Hall


 



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