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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Turn of The Screw (1954)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor) – Peter Quint/Prologue
Sally Matthews (soprano) – Governess
Michael Clayton-Jolly (treble) – Miles
Lucy Hall (soprano) – Flora
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (alto) – Mrs Grose
Katherine Broderick (mezzo) – Miss Jessel
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Farnes
rec. live, 16 and 18 April 2013, Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0749 [53:59 + 56:33]

The best thing about this recording of Britten’s greatest chamber opera is the conducting of Richard Farnes. Farnes has done stunning Britten work in the theatre with Opera North, including a brilliant Turn of the Screw in 2010. He knows precisely how to pace this work to capitalise on not just the musical elements but also the horror inherent in the story. Poignantly, the concert which gave birth to this recording was meant to be conducted by Sir Colin Davis, but he died only two days before the performance (see review). It is all the more to Farnes’ credit that he could pull of such a brilliant performance at such short notice. He builds a palpable sense of dread into the unfolding story. Britten’s score performs much of this task for him, but Farnes injects a palpable sense of urgency into moments such as Variation 10 (after the Bells scene) which only makes the tension build all the more, and he gets the best out of tricky moments such as Quint getting Miles to steal the letter. He is helped by brilliant playing from the reduced ensemble of the LSO. The great thing about this opera is that the number of musicians required is so small - and so skilled - that every ensemble assembled for it is bespoke, and the playing here is first class. You get the best of the playing and the best of Farnes in the introduction to Act 2 (Variation 8) where each instrument seems to speak quietly into the void before handing over to another. The final variation is so tense that music as we know it threatens to break down altogether.
 
Unfortunately the singing isn’t quite on a par with this. The two ghosts are the finest. Andrew Kennedy’s Quint deserves comparison with the best. There is an eerie, ethereal quality to his voice that is really quite uncanny, but he is nearly always beautiful, and he doesn’t forget that it is this character’s seductiveness that makes him so dangerous. Katherine Broderick makes a very distinctive sound as Miss Jessel, singing with a sense of the deranged which makes her stand out from the other ladies. Sally Matthews gets better as the opera progresses, and from the scene in the bedroom onwards she is very convincing, but she takes a while to get to that level. In the first act she is too shrill, pointing up the characteristic nervousness to the detriment of everything else. I found her both too histrionic and too anonymous to convince us that this character was going on a developmental journey. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a solid enough Mrs Grose, but Lucy Hall is too obviously adult to convince as a small girl and, while Michael Clayton-Jolly rises to the challenge of Miles, he is one-dimensional in comparison with some others on disc.
 
Welcome as this is, the weaknesses in the singing mean that it can’t take precedence over the finest Screw on disc, the one from Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Starring Bostridge’s nonpareil Quint and Joan Rodgers’ edgy Governess, that one will be hard to surpass. However, this LSO set does have its budget price on its side and, in accordance with LSO Live’s usual high standards, it includes the full English libretto in the booklet.
 
Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Paul Corfield Godfrey and Brian Wilson

Britten discography & review index: The turn of the screw