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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76)
The turn of the screw, Op.54 (1954)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor) - Prologue, Peter Quint; Sally Matthews (soprano) - Governess; Michael Clayton-Jolly (treble) - Miles; Lucy Hall (soprano) - Flora; Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo) - Mrs Grose; Katherine Broderick (mezzo) - Miss Jessel
members of London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Farnes
rec. Barbican Hall, London, 16 and 18 April 2013
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0749 [53.59 + 56.33]

During the celebrations of the centenary of his birth in 2013 the music of Benjamin Britten was given a thoroughgoing exploration throughout the opera houses and concert venues of the world. This extended not only through all the works published during the composer’s lifetime but also into the realm of the vast amount of manuscript material from his earlier years which had previously remained in Britten’s bottom drawer. This plethora of performances inevitably led to a vast expansion in his representation on disc, quite apart from the reissue of the many recordings the composer made during his long career as a performing artist.
The present release of a concert performance of The turn of the screw brings the total number of individual representations of the work in the current catalogue to eleven, exceeded among Britten’s operas only by the number of complete recordings of Peter Grimes. During Britten’s lifetime there was only one recording of The turn of the screw available, that made in mono by Britten himself immediately following on the 1955 world première of the opera in Venice with the original cast. That recording that remains available to this day. Only in 1982, over twenty-five years later, did a second appear, the first in stereo, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. The remaining nine have been entirely the product of the last thirty years.
It is perhaps not surprising that The turn of the screw has achieved such popularity. The ghost story of Henry James is full of fascinating subtleties that inevitably attract the interest of stage directors and producers. How many of the supernatural elements are real, and how many are simply the product of the Governess’s over-ferbrile imagination? James himself left these ambiguities to stand, but Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper gave more substance to the eerie events. This was even to the extent of allowing the two ghosts a scene entirely to themselves which serves to establish at the very least their corporeal substance. Of the eleven recordings in the catalogue, no fewer than six are video productions which explore these issues in greater detail. One of the post-Davis audio recordings forms part of the studio series of Britten operas conducted originally for Collins Classics by Steuart Bedford. The remainder - including this one - derive from opera and concert performances.
The original Decca recording was perhaps oddly made in mono only, although the company were experimenting with stereo at the time. It remains one of the best of all mono recordings, with plenty of atmosphere around the sound and a beautifully judged sense of distance when Pears enters with his melismatic calls of “Miles!”. Oddly enough this new recording, made in the unresonant acoustic of the Barbican Hall, does not improve greatly on the sound that the engineers managed to capture in 1955 even with the advantages of SACD and multi-channel production. The voices are observed from a near distance, but the diction is far less clear than Britten managed to obtain from his original cast. Even Andrew Kennedy in the piano-accompanied Prologue lacks the pinpoint clarity of delivery that Peter Pears gave us. Sally Matthews has a richer tone than Jennifer Vyvyan, but again this comes at the expense of the words. Catherine Wyn-Rogers has more voice than Joan Cross in 1955 - the latter was coming to the end of her career at the time - and blends beautifully with Matthews, but again one is at a loss to know precisely what she is singing about without the benefit of the text provided with the discs. The narrative of Quint’s death (track 11) does not generate the dramatic frisson which we really need at this point. Matthews’ delivery of the horrified exclamation “Died?” sounds just too matter-of-fact, not a patch on Vyvyan’s shocked reaction.
Unfortunately this lack of dramatic involvement, perhaps an inevitable concomitant of a concert performance which has not been preceded by a staged presentation, extends to the singing of Michael Clayton-Jolly in the pivotal role of Miles. His delivery of “Malo, malo” is precisely placed and plaintively delivered, but David Hemmings’ close identification with the part in the original recording - and more sympathetic microphone placement - enabled him to bring so much more to what should be a chilling moment. Microphone placement is again a problem when Peter Quint’s voice is heard from offstage at the beginning of track 17. Here Kennedy’s voice is initially so far distanced as to be almost indistinguishable beneath the accompanying celesta figuration. You can actually hear him coming onto the Barbican stage during the passage that follows, which unfortunately sheds the supernatural atmosphere that should surround his voice. On the other hand Katherine Broderick’s Miss Jessel is distinctly present from her very first words - not at all spooky. When the Governess and Mrs Grose interrupt, their voices sound very much in the same dimension as the ghosts. Miles’s concluding remark “I am bad, aren’t I?” sounds rather plain and lacks the disturbing sense of corrupted innocence that Hemmings brought to the words.
In the Second Act very much the same considerations apply. The scene in the churchyard with the virtuoso part for tubular bells again lacks definition in the text, with Clayton-Jolly placed rather far back from the microphones in the recorded balance. The Governess’s realisation “It was a challenge!” is beautifully sung but without any sense of dawning despair - or madness. Lucy Hall blends well with Clayton-Jolly in their many passages of duet. However, the scene between the Governess and Miles in his bedroom - the scoring of the music disturbingly carrying a sense of the bedroom scene in The rape of Lucretia - where the preternatural maturity of the corrupted Miles in his address to the Governess as “My dear” should freeze the perceptions - is again lacking is the sense of sheer menace that we should experience here. Even his final shout of “Peter Quint, you devil!” which should sound like the eruption of a mind driven to the limits of endurance, is just that - a shout. Matthews sings her final lament very beautifully and with considerable feeling but Robert Tear once recorded that Britten verbally assaulted him for treating the composer’s music as a purely musical exercise rather than a dramatic one. One rather fears that his reaction here would have been similar.
The orchestral performance under Richard Farnes is everything it should be, and indeed as a representation of this chilling score this is a very good performance indeed. That said, it does lack the sheer sense of discovery and horrified engagement that was present in the original Decca recording. Even as a modern representation of the score listeners may prefer, for example, Colin Davis’s richer sound. One gets the distinct impression that the work may just have become a bit too familiar and comfortable to the cast. There is really something to be said for seeing the opera on DVD or Blu-Ray, where the nature of the relationships between the characters can be more readily appreciated. There are, after all, six to choose from.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Britten discography & review index: The turn of the screw