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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

The Rescue of Penelope

  • The Rescue of Penelope
  • Phaedra*
Janet Baker, narrator
Alison Hagley, soprano
Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano
John Mark Ainsley, tenor
William Dazeley, bass
*Lorraine Hunt, soprano
Hallé Orchestra/Kent Nagano
Erato 0630-12713-2 51:00
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A fabled Rescue; a less-than-tragic heroine.

Listening to The Rescue of Penelope, I wondered how such powerful and beautiful music had gone unknown by the general public (in which I count myself) for so long. It comes from the early Forties, when the composer's idiom acquired probably its most warmly sensual form. Britten for good reason has become one of the most popular of modern composers, with bona fide hits, and record companies are beginning to mine the forgotten corners of his catalogue in the hope of striking gold yet again. It constitutes a hedged risk. If the world ran on merit, Erato would be rewarded.

The version performed here has a complicated history. Britten originally wrote it as incidental music for a BBC radio play by Edward Sackville-West, on Odysseus's homecoming and slaying of Penelope's suitors. However, Britten's status as a conscientious objector during World War II had raised hackles within the BBC and apparently among several music critics. Britten was so disgusted with the internal politics of the BBC that, after completing the music as a gesture of friendship to Sackville-West, he withdrew from the project. The performance, badly rehearsed, did not receive a friendly critical reception, and it seemed fated to sink without a trace. However, Chris de Souza (apparently, he did most of the work), Colin Matthews (who made minimal, invisible musical changes in the adaptation), and Donald Mitchell reshaped the piece into a concert version which has indeed had the occasional performance. This, however, is its première recording, over fifty years after its composition.

The music is flat-out gorgeous - every note golden. I can't think of a weak or routine moment in the entire score. The liner notes point out favorite passages, but that's almost beside the point. Like the Odyssey itself, The Rescue of Penelope impresses as a whole. It defies belief that Britten wrote to a fairly tight deadline. The music finds its way straight to the listener's heart in almost severely economic gestures, but the tone is above all warm and singing. The score abounds in memorable themes and coups de theatre. The music depicting Odysseus's lone boat on the Aegean reminds us that Peter Grimes is just around the corner, as does the arpeggiated melos given to the singers, portraying Athene, Artemis, Hermes, and Apollo. The trumpet call associated with Athene, the theme of Penelope's longing - in effect, an instrumental aria, and from the saxophone, yet! - a neat, apparently effortless canon in two and then three parts, the depiction of Odysseus's transformation into an old man by the goddess Athene, and the slaying of the twelve suitors by the twelve arrows from the hero's bow constitute a mere fraction of memorable moments in this score - all directly communicative and strikingly "visual" in their affect. Britten gives the impression of wielding a Fortunatus sack of invention, and without breaking a sweat.

In its new form, the work is largely melodrama - that is, music underscoring a speaker. The text comes mainly from the Sackville-West play (mostly speeches given to Athene), with minimal interpolations from the Homeric source. Melodrama usually falls into two distinct traps: either the text shoves the music into the background (in which case, why have the music at all?) or the music is so good that you lose the import of the spoken text and hence the subject of the musical depiction. It's the latter case here. A stronger reader than Janet Baker might have made a better case for the work, but hearing her again, even in a non-singing part, gladdens me immensely. One of my favorite British singers - maybe my second favorite after Ferrier - she brings great Britten credentials, having recorded both Lucretia and Phaedra, which Britten wrote specifically for her. Unfortunately, the drama of her singing doesn't carry over to her spoken declamation. Nevertheless, a fabulous work, long overdue for recording.

Phaedra, on the other hand, comes from Britten's late period, after his first heart attack, when the work of composing had become physically and psychologically hard for him. Nevertheless, he persevered, wanting to write this work specifically for Janet Baker, who made a classic recording for British Decca (London 25666). By this time, Britten had moved from a personal refashioning of Stravinskian, triad-based neo-classicism to a spikier chromaticism. He models the work on the Handelian cantata using the building blocks of recitative and aria, with a near-Handelian orchestra of strings and harpsichord. He does add some discreet percussion. In short, it reminds me very strongly of Handel's "Armida abbandonata," also, incidentally, recorded by Baker. Britten took his text from Robert Lowell's translation of Racine's Phèdre, the scene where the woman, through her lust responsible for the death of her innocent stepson at the hand of his father, Theseus, drinks poison and confesses all. The recitatives, in the manner of similar sections of Britten's Canticles, move to the prose rhythms of the text, cutting across metrical and rhyming boundaries in freely-associative sequences. Britten emphasizes Phaedra's psychological turnings. The arias, equally dramatic, nevertheless follow more aurally-coherent musical structures. Indeed, Britten has tamed the pentameter and Alexandrines of Lowell's verse to what the ear accepts as "natural" musical phrases. But this is merely cold admiration for technique. With the right performers, this should be a shattering work.

Under Britten and Baker, that's exactly what it was. Baker pushed dramatic limits without hamming it up, and Britten's strings stung and slashed. The diction, always Baker's weak point, wasn't bad enough to mar the drama - in other words, the cantata's point. Lorraine Hunt is far more intelligible to less effect. Nagano turns in a clean, crisp performance but doesn't rise above thoroughly professional. The Rescue of Penelope comes off far better, even though the singers are close to incomprehensible at least two-thirds of the time. The orchestra and the ensemble become the stars. Nagano fully responds to the theatricality and even movie-like sweep of the score, getting beautiful sounds from everybody and simultaneously moving the matter along. The score gleams like warm, burnished gold.

The recording sounds almost eerily clear. You feel as if you could pick out each instrumentalist. In all, one of the most important releases of British music in the last few years, with at least one marvelous performance.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz