Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37(1946) [105.33]
Ian Bostridge (tenor) - Male Chorus; Susan Gritton (soprano) - Female Chorus; Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo) - Lucretia; Peter Coleman-Wright (baritone) - Tarquinius; Christopher Purves (bass) - Collatinus);Benjamin Russell (baritone) - Junius; Hilary Summers (contralto) - Bianca; Claire Booth (soprano) - Lucia
Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble/Oliver Knussen
rec. Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, 11 and 13 June 2011
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6026722 [46.35 + 58.58]
Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia was the first of his operas to be recorded for the gramophone, shortly after its Glyndebourne première in 1946 when it failed to repeat the overnight success of Peter Grimes the previous year. At that time substantial excerpts amounting to some two-thirds of the score were set down by EMI on twenty sides of 78s, although Ernest Ansermet and Kathleen Ferrier from the original first-night cast had to be replaced because they were under exclusive contracts to Decca. Reginald Goodall and Nancy Evans from the alternative cast did a respectable job on the sections that were recorded, and the set was reissued on LP by Music for Pleasure; it has subsequently reappeared on CD with an extra 78 side restored, and it remains of interest because it is the only currently available recording which gives us the score as it was originally written before Britten revised and cut it the following year.
After that Lucretia languished unrecorded until Britten himself set it down in 1971, and that reading is one of the best of his series of operas for Decca made during the period 1958-1972. It was also the last of the operas he recorded before his ultimately fatal illness supervened; and it enshrines a cast that is nearly perfect, headed by Janet Baker in the title role. That recording, like the current transcription assembled from two live concert performances from the Aldeburgh Festival, was made in the perfect acoustic of the Snape Maltings where the resonance of the sound lends a warmly romantic glow to much of the music. I have not heard the later complete recording on Chandos conducted by Richard Hickox, but I note that other reviewers have complained that the drier and more analytical acoustic of that recording does not present the score in the best light. Here full advantage is taken of the opportunities to distance the voices - as during the prologue to the Second Act - and the recording has been assembled from two performances which presumably gave the chance to correct any minor slips; not that I can detect any. Otherwise the recorded sound now is slightly clearer than the Decca analogue recording from fifty years ago, but remains very much on a par with the excellent sound that the engineers achieved then.
In 1971 Britten had a pretty well ideal set of singers at his disposal, only occasionally surpassed here. Where the new recording does fall down, however, is in the lengthy opening scene - pruned by Britten in his 1947 revision - between the three Roman generals, all lower male voices. In 1971 Britten managed to achieve a considerable contrast between the young, and at that time, rock-steady, voice of Benjamin Luxon, the warmer and more sympathetic John Shirley-Quirk, and the abrasive Bryan Drake. Although the singing in this new version is equally fine, the contrast between the three voices is very much less distinct, and this rather removes the element of dramatic contrast. Without the score or text it is sometimes difficult to determine just who is singing at any given point.
In the second scene where we move to the women’s voices, Angelika Kirchschlager is a beautifully inflected heroine, but she lacks the inimitable sense of loneliness and isolation that Janet Baker brought to lines like “How quiet it is!” and “I was sure I heard something”. On the other hand Hilary Summers is just as characterful a Bianca as Elizabeth Bainbridge was in 1971, and Susan Gritton floats Lucia’s quiet high lines with a sense of beauty which surpasses the otherwise good Jenny Hill in 1971. The folding of the linen is a real highlight of this recording, a definite improvement on Britten’s own reading in its sense of timeless suspension.
The other point where Britten’s recording is less than totally ideal comes with the casting of the Male Chorus. In 1946 Peter Pears was neatly incisive and rhythmically alert, but by 1971 his vibrato had loosened considerably, and some of his high notes betrayed a sense of strain although his response to the words was as careful as ever. There are no such concerns here about Ian Bostridge, nimble in Tarquinius’s ride and demonstrating a real and unexpected sense of power in Go, Tarquinius! The only point at which I felt that Pears was better came right at the end of the opera. After the Female Chorus’s anguished protests “Is that all?” - where Susan Gritton and Heather Harper are evenly matched for their engagement with the vocal line and the beauty of their singing - the Male Chorus’s response “It is not all” were floated by Pears with a heartbreaking intensity of feeling, helped by Britten’s slight slowing of the tempo, which is lacking here.
Although I have already observed on the lack of contrast between the three baritone and bass voices, it must be noted that Benjamin Russell in particular has a more sheerly attractive voice than Bryan Drake; and that Peter Coleman-Wright as the priapic prince and Christopher Purves as the sympathetic husband both do full justice to their roles even if the latter lacks the bass gravitas of John Shirley-Quirk. Knussen yields nothing whatsoever to Britten in his careful pacing of the score, and the newer recording does enable us to hear details that were muffled before. The orchestra, led by no less an artist than Clio Gould, plays superlatively.
In other words, this is a tremendous recording for a new generation of one of Britten’s most beautiful scores. Critics at the time of the first performances complained about the wordiness of the original libretto, but this hardly seems a problem now. Lines such as “The oatmeal slippers of sleep” have a beautiful resonance which some of Britten’s more workaday librettos such as Gloriana conspicuously lack; it is not surprising that the text, drawn from a French play by André Obey, also attracted such a different composer as Respighi, whose posthumous Lucrezia makes a fascinating contrast to Britten’s cooler and more objective setting.
The booklet contains a useful essay by Colin Matthews - reprinted from the Aldeburgh Festival programme - which makes some pertinent observations about Britten’s 1947 revisions to the score as well as the complete text and synopsis. While regretting the disappearance of Collatinus’s aria “Love is all desperation” from the first scene (Lucretia quotes from it during the rape scene), it is clear that Britten felt that his tightening up of the score was an advantage, and given the small number of recordings of the score it is obviously desirable that Britten’s preferred version should be adhered to. In a similar vein, the restoration of the muster scene in Billy Budd - cut by Britten in his revision - which has been made in some recent recordings does not always work to the score’s advantage.
In the end, however, Britten’s fifty-year-old recording still reigns supreme as an interpretation of this beautiful work. Apart from the superlative Janet Baker the rest of Britten’s cast yields little or nothing to the singers here. There have been pirates available of early performances with Kathleen Ferrier, but from what I recall of these the recorded sound is pretty abysmal, and Baker is even better than the young and at the time still relatively inexperienced Ferrier in her response to the text. The Decca set also contains a ‘filler’ - which none of the alternative versions do - in the shape of the scena Phaedra which Britten wrote for Janet Baker at about the same time. As a work it has not always found favour with critics, but it complements an invaluable conspectus of the contribution of Baker to the Britten discography.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
A tremendous recording for a new generation of one of Britten’s most beautiful scores.
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