I missed this performance when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on
17 April 2013, so I’m pleased to have caught up with it on CD.
LSO Live specify 16 and 18 April, so I assume that what we have here
is a conflation of the dress rehearsal and the repeat performance
on the second evening. Colin Clarke was there on that second evening
and reported for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard - review
- concluding by expressing the hope that LSO Live would preserve the
performance for posterity. Here it is, his wish come true.
This was originally scheduled to be conducted by Sir Colin Davis,
whose 1995 Philips recording has been reissued at mid-price on Decca
4784143, making it and the new recording roughly commensurate in price.
In the event it became a memorial to Sir Colin’s memory, with
some short tributes, not preserved on the recording.
Inevitably another earlier recording of the work must be mentioned;
Britten’s own mono version from 1955, with Peter Pears as Prologue
and Peter Quint remains my benchmark. Whatever other version of this
chilling opera you go for, this remains an indispensable purchase,
either on Decca (4256722, 51:34 + 52:43) or, more economically, as
a download in a decent Naxos Classical Archives transfer from emusic.com
for £0.84, preferable to the Past Classics version which I mentioned
in my April 2009 Download Roundup. If you don’t subscribe to
emusic.com, it costs little more from classicsonline.com (£3.98)
- there’s no CD and the download is not available in the USA
and several other countries.
It was probably a mistake to listen to that classic recording first,
but it means that the new CDs had a tough act to follow. I’m
not a fan of Peter Pears’ voice but it’s his voice that
comes to mind first and foremost - haunts me, indeed - in hearing
any Britten opera and that’s especially the case with the Prologue
and Peter Quint in Turn of the Screw. Add Jennifer Vyvyan as
the governess, Joan Cross as Mrs Grose the housekeeper, Britten directing
the English Opera Group and a recording which still sounds well, though
it’s mono only, and it’s practically unassailable. This
was the first time that David Hemmings, who was to go on to become
a famous actor, appeared before the public as Miles, giving what Alec
Porter aptly described at the time as ‘an extraordinarily perceptive
account’. I first heard the opera soon after I read the Henry
James story and both had a powerful effect on me. It’s still
equal first in my estimation of the Britten operas alongside Peter
I’m sorry to seem to be writing a review of the original recording,
but the fact is that it still grabs my attention as the new LSO Live
SACD doesn’t quite. Though the latter is available as a hybrid
SACD - I listened to both the CD and SACD stereo layers - in some
respects the older recording even possesses greater clarity, though
the spatial qualities of the new recording are apparent even in stereo,
especially as the ghostly Quint approaches and seems to end up in
It is unfair to criticise Andrew Kennedy for not being Peter Pears,
but I found that he involved me less, even in the Prologue. Pears’
performance of Quint richly merited the cry of ‘Peter Quint,
you devil!’ I’m not so sure about Kennedy. As I was about
to close this review, Paul Corfield Godfrey’s take on the new
recording appeared and I found myself in almost complete agreement
with him about the lack of dramatic involvement and the diction problems
affecting all the singers - review.
Admittedly Joan Cross’s voice in 1955 was past its best, but
somehow that seems appropriate for the role of Mrs Grose and perhaps
enabled her to enter into the character so effectively. At the other
end of his career, David Hemmings brought a knowing touch to the part
of Miles that isn’t quite captured by Michael Clayton-Jolly
on the new recording.
In one respect, however, I did enjoy the new recording. As with the
recent Covent Garden DVD/blu-ray of Gloriana, the hero of the
day is the conductor. I understand that Richard Farnes, of Opera North,
had been mentored by Sir Colin, albeit in conducting Sibelius rather
than Britten. Like other reviewers of the live concert, Colin Clarke
focuses on the clarity of focus inherent in his direction and that
comes over clearly in the recording, albeit that the pace overall
is rather slower than Britten’s own.
The notes in the booklet are informative but its multi-lingual nature
means that, though printed in a small font, it’s so substantial
that it’s very difficult to fit it back in the slim-line case.
Inconvenient though that is, we can at least be thankful that the
opera comes with the libretto and at a reasonable price, around £15
- back in 1955 you would have paid 72/11 (£3.65, but equivalent
to over £75 now) for the LPs and still not have had a libretto.
I’ll happily stay with Pears and Britten from 1955, then. The
new version by comparison sounds like a good run-through on an enjoyable
evening. If you must have stereo, you might consider the Colin Davis
reissue. I have read good things of Daniel Harding’s recording
(mid-price Virgin/Warner Classics, 4563792) but I haven’t heard
Previous review: Paul
Britten discography & review index: The
turn of the screw