CD Review

Celebrating Benjamin Britten


© Chris Green, June 2013



Tucked beneath the hill on the Suffolk coast is the small town of Aldeburgh. Home for many years to composer, Benjamin Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, the town is currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth in the Suffolk town of Lowestoft, slightly further up the coast and facing directly across the North Sea to the Netherlands. Aldeburgh is no stranger to controversy, whether it is about some of its residents (including Britten) or the sculpture that has been installed on the beach complete with words from Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. It is regularly admired or defaced by those who appreciate it or loath it.

Aldeburgh was the subject of a famous poem by George Crabbe called The Borough. The setting is 1830 and this is a small fishing community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Little is hidden but there remains a mystery about the boy apprentice to fisherman, Peter Grimes who has drowned. Peter Grimes is not held responsible, but the villagers have their suspicions and so starts a tale of tragedy where Grimes is driven to desperation by those around him.

Last month I recommended a wave-lapping performance on disc of Benjamin Britten’s ground-breaking opera Peter Grimes. That performance was conducted by Sir Colin Davis, and now I have another to recommend. Sir Bernard Haitink conducts the soloists, Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra in a tingling account, first released in 1993. From the opening Prologue to the first sounds of waves crashing on the Aldeburgh beach vividly depicted in music by Britten, this performance is gripping as the forces close in on the hapless fisherman, Peter Grimes, and the tongues wag to the point of destruction. The two CD set is reissued in an EMI Classics series (EMI 4 56943 2), and is joined by another Britten opera, the spooky setting of a Henry James story, The Turn of the Screw (EMI 4 56379 2). Daniel Harding’s direction of this more intimate opera is assured and is served by some fine solo singing from both adults and children headed Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Joan Rodgers (soprano). Snape Maltings was the recording setting for this release in 2002 and it makes a welcome return to the catalogue.

One of the most enjoyable of Britten operas is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Adapted by Britten and Pears form Shakespeare’s play, Britten conjures up two sound worlds: one for the ethereal characters such as Puck and the fairies, and another for the “rude mechanicals” including Bottom, Quince and their colleagues. If Aldeburgh had provided the inspiration for Peter Grimes, so it was repeated for this opera. The occasion was the opening of the reconstructed Jubilee Hall in the town in 1959-60. Within seven months the opera was completed and premiered in 1960 at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival before being taken to the Netherlands. The late Richard Hickox had a sure grasp of this work and his recording with the City of London Sinfonia and a distinguished line-up of soloists remains a small jewel in the Virgin Classics catalogue. Recorded in 1990 in EMI’s Abbey Road Studio No 1, and now released on two CDs, the CD booklet has a multi-lingual synopsis, but really one does need to have a libretto in front of one (Virgin 3 81832 2).

In this celebratory year, it is that record collectors and opera lovers are spoilt for choice in these thirteen important contributions to the twentieth century opera repertoire.