Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Phaedra, op. 93 (1975) [15:00]
A Charm of Lullabies, op. 41 (1947, arr. C. Matthews 1990) [12:16]
Lachrymae, op. 48a (1950, rev. 1976) [15:32]
Two Portraits (1930) [15:09]
Sinfonietta, op. 1 (1932, rev. 1937) [14:45]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo: Phaedra), Maxim Rysanov (viola: Lachrymae, Portraits)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Studio 1, Maida Vale Studios, London, 23-25 September 2010. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10671 [73:18]

Phaedra is all concentrated tension: stark, sepulchral, unremitting. You don’t get any perspective on her other than her own withering self condemnation. You experience with her that torment and feel the tragedy.

Sarah Connolly finely colours the characterization, able to invest the singing simply of a name with eloquent meaning. Her husband Theseus is coloured with loathing, his son Hippolytus, her forbidden love, addressed with both desire, a covert whisper ‘I love you’, and remorse.

Edward Gardner’s handling of the orchestration graphically catches all the resonances of this passion, especially the two great ascents of divided strings that we learn, after the first, mark the infusion of poison Phaedra has taken. I compared the recording made in 1977 by the first performers of the work, Janet Baker and the English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford (Decca 4256662). Baker has more fiery intensity as well as sadness. Her central recitative is colder, more stony while Bedford’s closing Adagio is more markedly a laborious death march. Connolly brings for the listener an equally involving uncompromising and unpitying analysis of her state laid bare with great clarity. Her central recitative (tr. 1 6:20), however, is warmer and Gardner’s closing Adagio (9:19) is a smoother infusion of poison, rather than the celebration of Phaedra’s declaration of atonement through sacrifice. Bedford brings more tension, Gardner reveals more detail of layering and cross-reference.

The cycle for mezzo and piano, A Charm of Lullabies, is here presented in Colin Matthews’ arrangement for mezzo and orchestra. ‘A cradle song’ begins with the accompaniment now an introduction by strings. This sets a mood of deceptively gentle contemplation belied by the uneasy flutes’ emphasis of the infant’s ‘cunning wiles’, climax of nightmare and loss of innocence. In ‘The Highland Balou’ balmy flutes provide a serenely regal quality which lightens the snap of the backing rhythms. This also allows Sarah Connolly to offer a lullaby of contentment. In ‘Sephestia’s Lullaby’ it’s the oboe that signals foreboding before Connolly brings a sullen chorus and hyperactive verses. ‘A charm’, on the other hand, proves to be more of a curse, delighting in nightmare pictures of violence. After this the oboe introduces the melody of ‘The Nurse’s Song’, an archetypically loving lullaby, with Connolly wholly maternal, vividly conveying wonder and gratitude mixed with anxiety. This is aided by warm touches of horn to effect a haunting and positive close. Matthews’ orchestration is sensitive and enhancing while Connolly’s presence well differentiates the highly varied nurse figures.

Lachrymae (tr. 7), subtitled ‘Reflections on a song of Dowland’, is in effect variations on ‘If my complaints could passions move’. That opening line is all that’s heard in the introduction, a throbbing miasma of strings around viola solo meditation. The entire theme isn’t heard until the end as a procession on string bass (11:43). There the soloist adds to the tension through tremolando semiquavers and a gradually increasing dynamic until he takes over the tune in impassioned expression. In the meantime there have been memorable reflections, such as the second (3:07) where the viola’s pizzicato study of the theme opening is punctuated by rapt, very soft string chords scored for 11 parts. The third reflection (4:35) presents a little more of the theme in sheeny high strings punctuated by viola arabesques, yet both grow more animated, to emotive and moving effect in this performance. The sixth reflection (7:58) has the soloist offering a morose soliloquy quoting the actual Dowland Lachrymae song, ‘Flow my tears’. The seventh (8:46) is a suave and delicate waltz. The ninth (10:50) is a stunning, icy panorama of falling strings while the viola remains static. Maxim Rysanov and Gardner are alert and sensitive to all these changes of mood and create a gripping account.

The first of Two Portraits (tr.8), of school-friend David Layton, is based on a rising six-note figure. The writing for strings sometimes flows with this and sometimes energetically tumbles around it. A slower, more ardent version of the motif in the cellos from 1:56 suggests an inherent sensitivity in David. A later introduction by the violas (5:41), is soon joined by the violins. This has a more expansive, musing aftermath and it’s in this more reflective cast that a solo viola closes the piece. The second Portrait (tr. 9) is of Britten himself and spotlights the solo viola, his own string instrument. Based on an opening phrase of eight notes, this is a more lyrical setting. Understated at first, you mightn’t recognize a melody until the muted violins shortly take it up and the soloist adds a reflective commentary. If the first portrait offers a foretaste of the angst of the Bridge Variations, the second glimpses the haunting lyricism of the Serenade. Particularly attractive is its becalmed final statement sinking to a dusk of pianissimo double-basses.

Gardner’s account of the Sinfonietta is characterized by tremendous energy and progression in its opening movement. Yet there’s a feeling of a work fully formed rather than experimental. The contrast marked ‘calmante’ (tr. 10 0:47) is clearly observed yet still fresh, as is the tranquillo second theme flute solo (0:57). The many instrumental solos emerge in this performance in a more purposeful and assertive manner than in the 1998 Hallé Orchestra/Kent Nagano recording (Apex 2564673917). In this way Gardner achieves a greater sense of urgency and community working together. This is also partly because he uses a smaller body of strings: Britten’s recommendation. Gardner reveals more clearly how the slow movement Variations develop from the first movement’s second theme, settling early on with an expressive duet by violins. Again his greater sense of urgency brings a more affirmative flute and oboe duet which seems naturally to lead to the burgeoning of the first violins’ climax. This is before the horn has the closing solo against a backdrop of serene high violins. In the Tarantella finale Nagano supplies more density of tone but Gardner has more rhythmic bite and a crisper contrast between the strings’ material in quavers and the woodwind’s semiquaver swirls.

This is a wonderful collection showcasing Britten’s mastery of both dramatic and poetic setting. His ability to distil a range of moods and responses is deeply impressive. This is even more so when contemplating an Elizabethan composer’s inspiration, his skill in creating musical portraits and an unconventional yet often expressive and always stimulating Sinfonietta. Moreover, the juxtaposition of early and late works makes you appreciate how well Britten applied his mature perspective, especially in the string orchestra arrangement of the original piano accompaniment of Lachrymae. It succeeds because of the excellence of the performances.

Michael Greenhalgh

A wonderful collection which succeeds because of the excellence of the performances.