Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
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
Booklet with text included.
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0749 [53:59 + 56:33]
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 Grimes.
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 our laps.
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 it.
Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey
Britten discography & review index: The turn of the screw
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