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Albert Herring on Naxos

BRITTEN Albert Herring
Gillett, Barstow, Palmer, Jones, Finley,
Taylor, Gritton, Lloyd, Savidge, Kale.
Northern Sinfonia/Steuart Bedford

Naxos 8.660107-08 [141:19]

A warm welcome to the 1996 studio recording of one of Britten's most complex and brilliant creations, re-released by Naxos from the Collins Classics back catalogue.

Although this mid-20.C classic, dating from 1947, has generally been played and received under the guise of period light comedy, with hindsight one approaches it with many conflicting feelings. Though I am normally more given to seeing opera live and on DVD, preferring not to separate the elements which combine to make it (at best) one of the greatest genres of theatrical entertainment, I make a strong exception here. It is a score of remarkable density of musical and operatic references, in which every word of the text contributes to building rounded characters that should not be confined in a single interpretation.

Steuart Bedford's perceptive and fastidious direction of his top class cast and players makes every point tell. Hearing it expertly recorded in an ideal acoustic (a church at Gosforth in the Northern Sinfonia's own territory) benefits from focussing without visual distraction upon the music, the text and its underlying messages, which are by no means locked in the fantasy milieu of rural Loxford, Britten's Suffolk standing in for du Maupassant's France. Eric Crozier's libretto is too subtle to take in fully without visual aid, even though the diction here is excellent. The villagers often think and express themselves in short phrases, and at cross purposes with many a non sequitur, especially in the swiftly moving ensembles when they express their individual reactions to the situations which unfold. The theme of the shy, effeminate hero's escape from his sensitve personality and immature sexuality, and from maternal domination, is bound to be read differently more than half a century on. There used to be a long-sustained assumption that Britten alone could properly direct his music, and only with Peter Pears taking the tenor roles created for him (a 'template' for subsequent performers, as Sue Knussen puts it in her concise introduction to Albert Herring).

I am not entering into comparisons with other recordings, but will limit myself to acclaiming the vivid characterisation and ripe singing of all the marvellously individualised parts, headed by Christopher Gillett as the rebellious 'mother's boy', and the presentation by Naxos, with clearly printed libretto, complete with its stage directions and identification of the musical forms built into the scenes, BALLAD, QUARTET(lamentoso), SONG, THRENODY etc. Sly allusions to operatic stereotypes pop up frequently for our knowing delectation, and Britten's orchestration for twelve solo players is still breathtaking, now that the chamber orchestra created for his pioneering early post-war English Opera Group has become a concert standard, with the London Sinfonietta leading and similar groups arising worldwide.

Britten fans will already have the classic Decca recording with Peter Pears and the composer conducting. Others can confidently be recommended to buy this version, especially so at the Naxos bargain price. Steuart Bedford, who conducts at the piano, brings to bear a long association with Britten at Aldeburgh during the composer's lifetime, and he has carried the torch subsequently. During Britten's illness, Bedford undertook the first performance of Death in Venice, and he progressed to become joint Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival. At just under £10 there is no excuse to hesitate.

Here I ask indulgence for declaring a personal interest. As a boy treble, my son Simon Woolf studied all Britten's vocal works as they came out, appeared in the 1960s as a soloist in Noye's Fludde and as Harry in Albert Herring (Guildhall School of Music & Drama) and took part in a Peter Pears Master Class.

The young Steuart Bedford was Simon's pianist partner in LP recitals of contemporary song, applauded in their time by Gramophone etc. CD-R transfers of them, one of which included songs of Britten, Berkeley, Williamson and other British composers (plus Szymanowski in Polish!) is available. Enquiries to mailto:peter.woolf1@btinternet.com .

Peter Grahame Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf