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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

The Operas, Volume 1

  • Albert Herring, Op. 39 1
  • Owen Wingrave, Op. 85 2
  • Billy Budd, Op. 50 3
  • Peter Grimes, Op. 33 4
1 April Cantelo, soprano
2 Heather Harper, soprano
2 Jennifer Vyvyan, soprano
1,2 Sylvia Fisher, soprano
4 Claire Watson, soprano
2 Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
1 Catherine Wilson, mezzo-soprano
1-4 Sir Peter Pears, tenor
1 Edgar Evans, tenor
2 Nigel Douglas, tenor
3 Robert Tear, tenor
4 Raymond Nilsson, tenor
3,4 David Bowman, baritone
2,3 John Shirley-Quirk, bass baritone
3,4 David Kelly, bass
1,3,4 Owen Brannigan, bass
1,2 English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
3 London Symphony & Ambrosian Opera Chorus/Benjamin Britten
4 Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus/Benjamin Britten
Decca 475602-0 8CDs 553m ADD/DDD
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This is the first volume issued by Decca of their vintage Britten recordings with the composer himself conducting his own operas. This instalment includes Albert Herring (1964), Billy Budd (1968), Owen Wingrave (1971) and Peter Grimes (1959). If one were to go into detail in analyzing the different aspects you would need volumes of time and space. Unfortunately, I have none of both so I will just limit myself to a few important details.

For Britten, every opera that he composed was to have a specific message connected to it and the four under review are no exception. Here we have classic recordings of; Owen Wingrave (Pride and fame even at the cost of tragedy), Peter Grimes (the destruction of a person at the hands of a rigid and uncompromising society), Albert Herring (the ridicule of a weak and mother dominated man) and Billy Budd (the dismantling of human dignity at the hands of evil and sadism for its own sake).

Britten directs his own works with a psychological mastery which is rather unique. He brings out all the pain, torment and suffering of most of the characters with chilling reality and where there is humour and fun (which are at a premium), he succeeds in surfacing them admirably with a light touch of hand.

The singers, choruses and orchestras that Britten conducts are among the finest that were ever recorded with a veritable array of British talent that one only dreams of assembling. Recordings are clean and atmospheric, and they sound even better with today's technological upgrade. The Chandos/Hickox series is a very safe alternative with superior sound and annotations but although Hickox is a fine Britten interpreter, he still has not grasped altogether the affinity of Britten himself with most of the characters.

Next year we will be remembering Britten on the 30th anniversary of his death. So these recordings will not be considered only as benchmarks but will be also considered as historical documents of paramount importance. Congratulations to Decca on this superb achievement.

Copyright © 2005, Gerald Fenech