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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Serenade for tenor, horn and stings, Op. 31 (1943) [22:57]
Nocturne, Op. 60 (1958) [26:35]
Phaedra, Op. 93 (1975) [14:57]
Philip Langridge, tenor
Ann Murray, mezzo
Frank Lloyd, horn
English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford (Serenade and Phaedra)
Northern Sinfonia/Steuart Bedford (Nocturne)
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London (Serenade and Phaedra) and St. Nicolas
Newcastle, UK in July 1994.
NAXOS 8.557199 [64:29]

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Naxos continue to reissue the catalogue of the late lamented Collins Classics label at their more attractive price. This is cause for rejoicing as Collins was a label superb in its quality of production and varied and eclectic in its choice of repertoire. Particularly admirable was Steuart Bedford’s ongoing project to record the works of Benjamin Britten, a composer with whom he is most closely associated.

I have often contended that there are times in which Britten’s own vast catalogue of recordings of his own music did as much harm as good to the progress of newer and different interpretations of the music. It seems as though he and Pears’ word on the works has been regarded as the definitive. I contend, however, that even the composer can have but one idea about his music, and the glory of the art form is in its ever-living and ever-present state of flux.

Now that both Britten and his chosen interpreter Peter Pears have been gone for more than twenty years, it is indeed time to reassess the music and find new and equally interesting things to say about it, even if it differs considerably from that which the composer and his friend laid down on disc.

To that end, we can be most grateful to Steuart Bedford and his circle of superb musicians who have brought us these, dare I say, peerless interpretations of three of Britten’s major works for voice and orchestra.

Opening with the striking Serenade, a work that I believe is unmatched in its perfection of the wedding between text and music. Right from the first note, we know that we are in for something stunning through Frank Lloyd’s breathtakingly flawless horn playing. The haunting solo played on the horn’s natural harmonics and thus sometimes sounding eerily “out of tune” is Britten’s ever-present symbol of innocence. It is played to absolute perfection. Langridge is a first rate interpreter of the vocal line as well, being at times forcefully dramatic and downright frightening as in “This-ae night;” agile and spirited in the “Hymn to Diana,” and hauntingly beautiful in the closing “Sonnet.” This is by far and away the very finest performance of this, one of my favorite works to both hear and sing, that I have ever heard.

The gems keep appearing in the Nocturne a work of similar vocal and orchestral colors (albeit with the addition of winds and brass) and of the same picturesque text settings that are typical of Britten. Again, Langridge finds the meat of the texts, bringing out all of the subtleties of the poetry with finely crafted, highly refined vocal shadings and a lovely clarity of tone. It is also noteworthy that Langridge can sometimes intentionally forsake beautiful singing for its own merit to serve the texts when they call for high drama. That is not to say that his singing is ugly, it is just appropriately shaded as fits the needs of the music.

Ann Murray is also a formidable actress in the late cantata Phaedra, a work dating from the last months of the composer’s life and originally intended for Dame Janet Baker. Ms. Murray’s rich mezzo-soprano is perfect for this woeful tale of inappropriate love and the anguish that is causes its heroine. Of particular merit is Ms. Murray’s ability to make the texts understood, a big challenge in this work that spans the singer’s entire range and is often doubled by strong and colorful orchestrations.

Steuart Bedford, perhaps Britten’s greatest living interpreter provides absolutely first-rate accompaniments to his soloists through the vehicles of the English Chamber Orchestra and the Northern Sinfonia. Bedford is in total sympathy with both the texts and the music, and he completely understands Britten’s psychology and his mode of expression.

Round this disc off with fine program notes and superb sound quality and you have a must-have for any lover of fine singing. Recommended without a moment’s hesitation.

Kevin Sutton

see also Reviews by Colin Clarke and Em Marshall


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