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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream - opera in three acts, (libretto by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, after Shakespeare) Op. 64 (1960) [137:49]
Oberon, King of the Fairies - Alfred Deller; Tytania, Queen of the Fairies - Jennifer Vyvyan; Puck - Leonide Massine II; Cobweb - Kevin Platts; Mustardseed - Robert McCutcheon; Moth - Barry Ferguson; Peaseblossom - Michael Bauer; Lysander - George Maran; Demetrius - Thomas Hemsley; Hermia, in love with Lysander - Marjorie Thomas; Helena, in love with Demetrius - April Cantelo; Theseus, Duke of Athens - Forbes Robinson; Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons - Johanna Peters; Bottom, a weaver - Owen Brannigan; Quince, a carpenter - Norman Lumsden; Flute, a bellows-mender - Peter Pears; Snug, a joiner - David Kelly; Snout, a tinker - Edward Byles; Starveling, a tailor -Joseph Ward
English Opera Group Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
rec. 11 June 1960, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, world premiere performance. ADD
Libretto not included
TESTAMENT SBT21515 MONO [71:09 + 66:40]

Back in 2013 Testament put us in their debt by issuing on CD the world premiere performance of War Requiem, given in Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Despite certain limitations both in terms of the performance itself and also the recorded sound, that release was absorbingly interesting and a highly significant complement to Britten’s legendary Decca studio recording (review). Now they have performed an equally valuable service to Britten’s magical - in every sense - opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
 
As Carl Rosman points out in his excellent and very interesting booklet note, the opera was written in haste for the reopening of the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh. This was a very small theatre, seating only about 300 people, so Britten wrote on an intimate scale. In this performance the orchestra numbers just 27, including 6 violins and pairs each of violas, cellos and basses. Therein lies one of a number of differences between this performance and the Decca recording of 1966: there the composer had a larger string section from the LSO at his disposal. Before the studio recording was made in 1966 Britten made a number of revisions to the score. As a result there are important textural differences between the Decca recording and this present one, which Carl Rosman describes in his essay.

In passing, it’s worth noting that the 1960 orchestra list contains a good number of luminaries. Emanuel Hurwitz led the orchestra. Other players included: Nona Liddell (violin); Cecil Aronowitz (viola); Richard Adeney (flute); the late Gervase de Peyer and Thea King – what a clarinet section!; Osian Ellis (harp); James Blades (percussion); and Viola Tunnard (harpsichord, celesta and piano).

Collectors who have the Decca recording will notice that there are significant differences in the cast list. Indeed, only six singers who sang in the premiere – Alfred Deller, Thomas Hemsley, Owen Brannigan, Norman Lumsden, David Kelly and Peter Pears – also took part in the Decca recording. Of those six, five reprised their original parts for Decca but Pears was “promoted” from the role of Flute to sing in the part of Lysander. Rosman tells us that the part of Lysander was written for Pears but he had insufficient time to learn it for the premiere so he took the smaller role of Flute/Thisbe.

It’s been absolutely fascinating to compare the two casts and, to be honest, in cases where I have a preference for one singer over another the differences seem to me to be marginal. I was interested to read in the booklet that Britten was very disappointed by Elizabeth Harwood’s assumption of Tytania in the Decca recording. Whilst wary of disagreeing with Britten, I have to say that I enjoyed Miss Harwood’s singing very much. She sounds gorgeous in the final fairy ensemble – which is beautifully balanced by the Decca engineers – and near the start of Act 3 I’ve noted down that her delivery of the line “Music, ho, music, such as charmeth sleep” seems radiantly regal. Mind you, Jennifer Vyvyan is wonderful in the Testament performance so it’s very hard – and perhaps dangerous – to express a preference for one singer over the other.

Alfred Deller is common to both sets in the role of Oberon. I should declare something of a bias straightaway in that I’ve never really cared for the sound of Deller’s voice. Whilst greatly admiring him as a genuine pioneer I’ve never been comfortable with the sound he made which seems to me to be too narrow-bore. That said, I enjoyed his performances on these two sets. Deller’s voice was not to all tastes and though the role of Oberon was written for him some of the recent obituaries of the late Russell Oberlin mentioned that when the opera was staged at the Royal Opera House in 1961 it was he, rather than Deller, who was cast as Oberon – I think I’m right in saying that Georg Solti, for one, was not a Deller fan. Subsequently Oberlin also sang the role in both the North American and US premieres, in Vancouver and San Francisco respectively. Carl Rosman makes the point that Deller didn’t sing the role much after the early performances and by the time the studio recording was made in 1966 that rather showed. As a performance I think that what we hear on the Testament set is better and fresher. However, the more flattering acoustics of the Decca recording work to Deller’s benefit, and the actual sound of his voice fell rather more pleasingly on my ears in that set. One thing is for sure: Deller certainly vindicated Britten’s inspired decision to use the otherworldly timbre of the counter-tenor voice for the role of the fairy king.

For the most part the two pairs of young lovers are differently cast between the two recordings. Thomas Hemsley is common to both sets as Demetrius and he was very effective on both occasions. April Cantelo sang opposite him at the premiere but Heather Harper took over as Helena in 1966. Both singers are excellent and it’s most interesting to hear them characterize Helena’s desperate pursuit of Demetrius in different ways. Overall Heather Harper’s lovely tone gives her a slight edge over Miss Cantelo but the margins are fine. The role of Lysander’s lover, Hermia was created by Marjorie Thomas. She’s excellent but so is Josephine Veasey, who sang on the Decca recording. The cat fight between Hermia and Helena in Act 2 (“Puppet? why so?”) is most convincingly done by Marjorie Thomas and April Cantelo; the fur really flies and one gets a vivid sense of a theatrical experience. On the Decca set Josephine Veasey and Heather Harper don’t have the stimulus of a stage performance in front of an audience but even so they square up to each other in a most realistic fashion.

The revelation of the Testament set, as far as I was concerned, is the performance of the American tenor, George Maran (1926-2011) as Lysander. I didn’t look up Maran’s dates until I had finished my listening but I had already reached the conclusion that he sounded younger than Pears before discovering that he was in fact 16 years younger. Maran was just a few weeks shy of his 35th birthday when this performance took place. Pears, by contrast, was 56 at the time of the Decca recording and in one sense it shows. He sings well enough but to me his voice sounds insufficiently young. Maran, on the other hand, sounds wholly convincing in character and I like the sound of his voice very much.

Mention of Pears brings us neatly to the Rude Mechanicals because in the Testament set he takes the role of Flute, giving an excellent reminder of his skills as a character actor/singer. He makes a really good job of this part and he’s particularly successful when the Mechanicals put on their play in Act 3. He’s genuinely funny as Thisbe and you can tell from the audience laughter that he looked the part as well. Norman Lumsden and Owen Brannigan reprised in the Decca recording their respective role creations that can be heard on the Testament set. Both are highly entertaining in their roles. In fact, the Mechanicals as a team do extremely well on both sets. However, the Testament sextet has the edge of a live performance. They do the rustic humour very well and clearly strike sparks off one another, entertaining the audience very much.

There’s one other crucial part to discuss: Puck. Just as it was an inspired decision on Britten’s part to write the role of Oberon for a counter-tenor so it was a masterstroke to have the role of Puck spoken by a boy. Both Leonide Massine II and Stephen Terry (Decca) are marvellous and it’s been absolutely fascinating to contrast their performances and to note how each inflects the lines in different ways. Both come across as real Jack-the-lad characters. I think Carl Rosman is right to identify a more primal aspect to Massine’s performance. That certainly comes out in the Act 2 passage where Oberon pins the blame for the error involving the lovers fairly and squarely on Puck (“This is thy negligence”). Both boys squirm and squeal in the face of Oberon’s wrath though Massine sounds more convincingly like a guilty urchin at this point. Stephen Terry’s lines are given an added reverberance in the Decca production – and his voice audibly moves between the left and right channels. That may not be to all tastes. By the shortest of heads my preference lies with Terry though I loved Massine’s performance also: both made me smile.

In terms of the overall performance Britten conducts with great vitality in both sets. His Decca reading plays for 144:12 compared with a timing of 137:49, including some applause at the end, when he conducted the opera for the first time. I noticed some instances of slightly more expansive tempi in the Decca set but the differences are not radical. I do feel, however, that overall there’s a greater sense of theatrical urgency in the first performance. That’s probably to be expected given that the performance clearly developed its own momentum on the night. Also, perhaps Britten pondered his tempi along with other aspects of the score during the years between the premiere and the Decca recording and decided that it would be appropriate to be a bit more relaxed in certain places.

The key difference between the two sets lies not in the conducting or in the individual performances but in what the respective recordings offer. Testament give us a recording of a production while Decca’s recording is a production. The Decca recording was made in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London in 1966. I don’t know who the engineers were – they’re not named on my CD set – though they did an excellent job and even now, just over 50 years later, the sound is still handsome. The producer was John Culshaw and he brought his customary perception and innovation to the proceedings. In particular he added a degree of reverberation around all the fairy voices. This was an inspired idea because it creates an aural illusion of otherworldliness and it differentiates between the fairies and the mortals. A further difference between the two recordings is that, as I mentioned earlier, the LSO was used for the Decca recording. I don’t know how big the orchestra was: quite possibly not the full LSO, but almost certainly a bigger band than Britten had on duty at the premiere. This gives a rather plusher feel to the orchestral sound – though it’s not excessive and the playing is superb. In comparison, the English Opera Group Orchestra, which is equally virtuosic, is more closely recorded and has a leaner sound. There are virtues to both ways of presenting the orchestral score.

Testament here offer the original BBC recording. It has been expertly transferred by Paul Baily. You can tell that the venue is a quite small hall – and, I presume, a correspondingly small stage and pit area. However, the sound isn’t constricted. You can hear quite an amount of stage noise – for example in Act 1 when Puck sprinkles the magic juice onto the eyes of the sleeping Lysander (“Through the forest have I gone”) you can hear his scampering around the stage quite clearly - but, for me, these noises add to the ambience. Similarly, when the Mechanicals’ antics amuse the audience it’s great to hear their audible reaction. This recording offers a vivid theatrical experience.

The libretto is not included with this set but it is available as a PDF file on the Testament website. I found that the tracking on the Testament and Decca sets was virtually identical so it was very easy indeed to follow the Testament performance from the Decca booklet. In passing, this also made it particularly easy for me to do A/B comparisons between the two performances.

So, how can I sum up this new Testament issue? Testament’s earlier issue of the first performance of War Requiem was highly important as a Britten document but one had to note some issues over the historic recorded sound and over the quality of some aspects of the performance. There are no such concerns here. The recorded sound is fully satisfactory as an historic issue and the performance is splendid but this set offers much more than just the opportunity to hear the work’s first performance, important though that is in itself. There isn’t a weak link in the 1960 cast and you can hear very impressive performances by quite a number of singers who were not involved in the later studio recording. I would say, therefore, that this is a highly significant issue in its own right and also an essential complement to Britten’s Decca recording.

This is a magical opera in every sense and it is wonderfully served here. Testament deserve our thanks for letting us hear the very first performance. All Britten enthusiasts should seek out this set as a matter of urgency.

John Quinn

 

 




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