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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Albert Herring - A Comic Opera in Three Acts Op. 39 (1947) [133:35]
Lady Billows, an elderly autocrat – Joan Cross* (soprano)
Florence Pike, her housekeeper – Gladys Parr* (contralto)
Miss Wordsworth, Head Teacher at the Church School – Margaret Ritchie* (soprano)
Mr Gedge, the Vicar – Otakar Kraus (baritone)
Mr Upfold, the Mayor – Roy Ashton* (tenor)
Superintendent Budd – Norman Lumsden* (bass)
Sid, a butcher’s shophand – Denis Dowling* (baritone)
Albert Herring, from the greengrocer’s – Peter Pears* (tenor)
Nancy, from the bakery – Nancy Evans* (soprano)
Mrs Herring, Albert’s mother – Catherine Lawson*
The Village children
Emmie – Anne Sharp* (soprano)
Cis – Elisabeth Parry* (soprano)
Harry – Alan Thompson (treble)
The English Opera Group Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
rec. live The Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, 15 September 1949. DDD
English libretto included
*Denotes member of the original cast
NIMBUS NI 5824/6 [3 CDs: 51:43 + 51:52 +30:00]

Experience Classicsonline

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this issue. What we have preserved here is a live performance of Albert Herring, under the direction of the composer, which took place just over two years after the première at Glyndebourne on 20 June 1947. What makes this issue so remarkable is that it gives us the opportunity to hear virtually the entire original cast. As will be seen from the list at the head of this review, only two of the singers in the 1949 production were not the creators of their respective roles. Britten made a studio recording of the opera for Decca but that was not set down until 1964 and only Peter Pears, by then fifteen years older, reprised his role in that recording.

The fact that we have this recording at all is due to the endeavours of one remarkable man, Knud Hegermann-Lindencrone (1911-1994). He was a keen lover of the theatre and equally enthusiastic about gramophone recordings. It was at his initiative that recordings were made of eighteen special performances given to celebrate the bicentenary of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. But that was just the start. Hegermann-Lindencrone then persuaded the theatre, and the artists involved, to let him continue this recording work and over the next forty years some 1500 performances were captured on tape. Since 1989 the entire collection has been the property of the theatre and must constitute a priceless archive.

The present performance was given during a tour by the English Opera Group, which took in various venues in the UK as well as performances in Oslo and Copenhagen. I understand that The Rape of Lucretia was also in the touring repertoire. Not surprisingly, this performance has all the feel of a well run-in ensemble with a cast who mostly had created their roles and who, without exception, knew them inside out. The recording was made using a single microphone, positioned in the orchestra pit right in front of the stage. A first generation open reel tape recorder was used. Although there are some sonic imperfections – the timpani are rather dully caught, for instance – the sound quality is absolutely astonishing, especially when one considers that the recording is sixty-one years old. An abundance of detail is reported and the listener has a very real sense of "being there". There are two slight losses of text caused by the recording operator changing tape reels. These occur at the start of Act 1, Scene 2 and at the start of Act 2, Scene 2. Nimbus helpfully make these small excisions clear in the libretto. While it’s a pity that these losses occurred we lose only 38 and 22 bars respectively and prospective purchasers should not be put off in the slightest.

Albert Herring was Britten’s third opera – or fourth if you count Paul Bunyan, which I think one should. The libretto was devised by Eric Crozier, who freely adapted a short story, Le rosier de Madam Husson [‘Madame Husson’s May King’] by Guy de Maupassant. Crozier moved the action from a small town in Normandy to Loxford, a fictitious East Suffolk market town, and updated the story to 1900. The plot tells the story of the down-trodden Albert Herring, firmly tied to the apron strings of his widowed mother, who is made May King – in the absence of a suitable candidate for the more usual role of May Queen – and finally achieves some degree of emancipation from his over-protective mother.

It’s a lively, amusing and often touching story, which inspired Britten to write some vivacious and tremendously fluent music. There is an important role for Peter Pears but Pears’s character is not as dominant as had been the case in Peter Grimes. Albert Herring is essentially a company opera. While listening to it I was put in mind of two very different things: the Ealing comedies and West Side Story, currently in the news thanks to its fiftieth anniversary production in London. The reason these things came to mind is that both are products of their time that have dated in some ways and yet in other ways have not dated but which, in any case, give us, of themselves, an invaluable perspective on the times in which they came into being.

Albert Herring is like that, I think. Some aspects have dated – the part played in the drama by the three Village Children, being the most obvious one. Yet the story it tells is a timeless one. I think it reflects also its times. Post-war austerity Britain was in a mood for being cheered up and this, perhaps, was Britten’s contribution to that process.

The performance brims over with verve and sheer joie de vivre. That’s evident at the very start from the infectious bustle that characterises the orchestral introduction to Act I. Every performer plays to the full his or her part in creating and maintaining this sense of an energetic, enjoyable occasion.

For me the star of the show is not Pears, though he’s excellent, but Joan Cross as Lady Billows. She lives up to the description of Her Ladyship in the score as "an elderly autocrat". She’s every inch the Grande Dame, the chatelaine of Loxford. When in Act III Superintendent Budd wearily describes her as a "self-appointed Chief Constable" you know exactly what he means. In the booklet essay Joan Cross is quoted as describing the role as "the Lady Bracknell of opera". What a superbly accurate verdict and how well the role’s creator ensures that her character lives up to it. Her Ladyship is aided and abetted by her maid, Florence. Gladys Parr gives a splendid portrayal of this loyal retainer, not least in the passage in Act 1, Scene 1 when she contrives to dismiss the claims of successive candidates for the role of May Queen.

Otakar Kraus was not the creator of the role of Mr Gedge, the Vicar – the original Vicar was William Parsons – but Kraus, singing in excellent English, is a marvellously unctuous parson and his singing and vocal acting give great pleasure. Roy Ashton is a suitably self-important mayor and Norman Lumsden gives an excellent impression of the quintessential British Bobby, even if his police rank is more exalted than that. I did wonder, however, why Lumsden alone of the cast affects a "rustic English" accent.

As Sid Norman, Denis Dowling is suitably stolid and down to earth, if a little unimaginative – just what the role requires in other words. His enthusiastic pursuit of Nancy has a real ring of authenticity to it. I’m not quite so convinced by Nancy Evans as his inamorata, however. Sometimes she sounds too matronly and a bit posh rather than the young village girl. To my ears this happens in her first appearance (Act 1, Scene 2) and also at "What would Missus Herring say?" (Act 3). That said, immediately after that brief passage in Act 3 she sings "We did it for fun" very nicely, conveying genuine pathos

Margaret Ritchie, on the other hand, is completely convincing as Miss Wordsworth. In Act 2, Scene 1, her increasing desperation as she coaches Cis, Emmie and Harry in their little song of welcome to the May King is richly comic, and clearly enjoyed by the audience. This is the sole occasion on which the contribution of the Village Children works for me. Here they sound to have stepped straight out of an Ealing Comedy and that’s appropriate. Elsewhere, I’m afraid, the roles – or perhaps the style in which they’re done here, which is very much of the period – have dated. Incidentally, in Act 3 there are two or three points at which Harry makes spoken interjections as the action proceeds. The nature of these is very specifically marked in the score and they are important – for example just before cue 41 he’s "shouting through the window". They should come across as excited interruptions by a cheeky, eager small boy but that’s not how they’re delivered here and the dramatic impact is lessened.

There’s no lack of impact in Pears’ contribution. The character of Albert spends quite a lot of the opera off-stage and arguably this is not a starring role in the sense of dominance in the way that Peter Grimes had been or that many other Britten roles were to be but it’s crucial to the drama, of course. In its own way the role of Albert, the pleasant, simple lad, is another of those outsider roles that Britten proved to be so adept at writing and that Pears was equally adept at enacting. A key consideration is that at the time of this performance Pears had just turned thirty-nine. There’s a winning lightness to his voice and also a pleasing sweetness of tone. In many Britten operas Pears was called on to play psychologically complex and often tragic roles. Here he proves he could "do" comedy as well and his performances as Albert Herring – and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream too, for that matter – are essential in giving us a rounded portrayal of Pears as a musician and actor.

His excellent sense of theatrical timing and the aforementioned lightness of tone are well to the fore at his very first appearance (Act 1, Scene 2). Later in the same scene we see the first signs of Albert as the potential rebel in the argument with his mother. At the start of Act 2, Scene 2 Pears’ vocal acting as the tipsy Albert returning home alone after the farce of his coronation is excellent. To judge from the reactions of the audience I suspect his physical acting was no less acute at this point. But it’s a little later in the same scene - from cue 74 - that Pears is at his very finest as his thoughts turn longingly to Nancy ("Why did she stare?"). Even under the influence of the laced lemonade he knows that she’s beyond his reach ("No, she belongs to Sid, not me") and Pears’ portrayal of the frustrated Albert fully engages our sympathies. His final solo at the end of this scene ("Heaven helps those who help themselves") is passionate and vocally agile. In Act 3, when he returns from his night on the tiles he relates the story to the outraged assembly of village big-wigs in a touching and very believable fashion. All in all this is a pretty marvellous assumption of the role.

The presence of the opera’s onlie begetter in the pit adds a tremendous frisson to the proceedings. Britten secures razor-sharp playing from the orchestra – the woodwind work is especially impressive – and he keeps a grip on the proceedings that is at once firm and flexible. The orchestral interludes between scenes or at the start of acts are sometimes sparkling, at other times superbly atmospheric – the interlude leading into Act 2 Scene 2 is a wonderful example of the excellence of the orchestral contribution. And the link between pit and stage is seamless. There’s much quicksilver music in Albert Herring, all of which is brought off with great brio but, for me, the most impressive piece of ensemble work is the eloquent threnody in Act 3. Here the serious side of Albert Herring is particularly strong. Britten blends no less than nine solo voices into an extended passacaglia, out of which individual solos rise. This passage is superbly realised here and it’s genuinely moving.

Throughout this sparkling performance you sense that all the performers are enjoying themselves greatly – and very professionally. This impression is reinforced right at the end when Britten stills the warm applause momentarily to deliver a brief but gracious speech of thanks to the audience. This is no less than deserved for the audience plays an important part in the success of the enterprise. As the production unfolds the audience audibly enters into the spirit of the performance, laughing frequently. Sometimes audience noise during a live recording can be intrusive. Not here. The audience’s evident appreciation and enjoyment of what is happening on stage just adds to the sense of occasion. We’re present, if only with our ears, at a real theatrical event and it’s a great experience.

Nimbus has not stinted with the documentation accompanying this release. A full libretto is supplied and in a separate booklet there’s a good note on the background to the Hegermann-Lindencrone recordings by Morten Hein, who made the archive transfer of the recording. There’s also a fascinating and affectionate essay about Britten, the EOG and Albert Herring by that fine tenor, Nigel Douglas. (As a banker myself, I love the story he tells about how in 1948 the directors of the English Opera Group went about seeking what was then a substantial, unsecured overdraft from Barclays Bank. How times have changed!) I wish a synopsis had been included but this is a minor cavil. Even the cover artwork is most attractive.

I have no hesitation in saying that this is one of the most important historical issues of this year – or for quite some time, come to that. It may not be a first choice recording for the opera – historic recordings rarely are library choices for the work concerned. However, it’s an absolutely essential supplement to whichever of the modern recordings you have in your collection. In addition it’s a potent demonstration of the sheer vitality and excellence of the work that Britten, Pears and their key collaborators in the English Opera Group were doing in the early post-war period.

In issuing this set Nimbus have performed a service to British music that is every bit as valuable as their work in restoring the Lyrita catalogue to general circulation.

John Quinn





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