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Stephen Hall
MusicWeb International, November 2006

The title of this disc is a slight misnomer because Phaedra is not a song-cycle but was described by the composer as a ‘cantata’. It might as well be a highly compressed opera. It is by a composer with his health collapsed yet at his peak of genius and with little time left to him. It was written for Dame Janet Baker and those unlucky enough to have missed the premiere or a recording of it missed a glory which the Decca CD (with The Rape of Lucretia) fails to capture. Steuart Bedford did his best to rally the ECO troops in the studio and Dame Janet was on great form but it simply falls short of what might have been. It plods along - like Lowell's clumsy translation of Racine - and the harpsichord is too far forward to make it sound real. Furthermore, Decca's cynical policy of sticking Britten recordings together at full price occurs here as awkwardly as the Billy Budd package where the great opera runs for just a few minutes on CD1 before getting to the rest. Hyperion's version of Phaedra with Jean Rigby conducted by Friend shows Miss Rigby near her best but the direction and orchestra are less than friendly and there is a confused air in the ensemble which lets the soloist down. The recording is also vague. The best performances are in the cheaper range with the star recording surely being the Elatus with the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. She is in her element with the Hallé Orchestra on accurate and thrilling form. Kent Nagano drives the action from his deep understanding of Britten's works and knowing the stakes regarding the soloist's health. This full-blooded performance reminds me of Dame Janet's world premiere because the character of Phaedra is a woman in middle age crazy about her son-in law so the part needs maturity but also guile in her royal court. Dame Janet achieved this live but the studio recording remains a disappointment. The Elatus recording lacks some focus and the Shostakovich-like skeletal percussion in the final bars is muffled; a good mixer can emphasise it. Enter Steuart Bedford on this Naxos CD with a Collins (1994) re-issue featuring the Irish Ann Murray as Phaedra, a fresher ECO and far better recording than Decca managed. This time we hear the intricate subtleties of Britten's wondrous orchestration. Ann Murray has a lighter mezzo than Baker and Hunt-Lieberson and is more restrained than the latter in the passionate abandon department. Murray picks up the 'foxy' nature of the historical character (as Baker did live) and is utterly thrilling in a different way from the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. For Phaedra I suggest buying both the Elatus and the Naxos but maybe borrowing the overpriced Decca from a library until someone who has a good recording of Dame Janet live can find a label to release it in the face of copyright tyranny. However, readers expect reviews to be in order so I now come to the Serenade as the best known piece on this superb Naxos CD. Without detracting from the qualities of the 1944 and 1950s recordings with dedicatee Dennis Brain the reference point for this work must be the Decca stereo version from 1964. It has real authenticity with Pears being joined by Barry Tuckwell in the horn part and by the LSO. A younger Pears in those earlier recordings has more vigour than in 1964. However the essence of the work is texture and, for me, Tuckwell has greater subtlety than Brain quite apart from the limited dynamic range of those pre-1960s recordings. Pears’ vocal style puts some people off. Langridge on this disc certainly uses his more nasal tone but from a far greater range than Pears ever had. His take on the Dirge is as good as it gets with some lower harmonics that suit the orchestration. Otherwise he follows the Pears tradition except for a gorgeous departure in the Keats Sonnet movement which shows an understanding of Keats which I miss in all other tenors. Readers will expect a comparison with the Bostridge versions (1999 and 2005) and I shall only say that the EMI version is let down by sub-standard horn playing and vague conducting. The Rattle BPO version finds Bostridge sounding more interested in diction than understanding. A performer should never get in the way of the music. Langridge with Bedford, Frank Lloyd on horn, even ‘pips’ Tuckwell for accuracy and the ECO simply loving the session really shows. These qualities are what makes this recording so important. The Nocturne is described as being a bit difficult, even on MWI pages, but I place it above the Serenade for sheer satisfaction in Britten’s orchestration, innovation and perfection in word-setting. This is a neglected work of genius set in a penumbra but it is a nocturnal piece. My review would be far too long if I described why each movement is so important and we are comparing versions on record so can forget all other contenders (some bizarre) and boil it down to Britten’s own Decca version with Pears against Langridge, the Northern Sinfonia and Steuart Bedford. In fact it isn’t a competition at all because Bedford was Britten’s deputy in the composer’s last years so what we have here is a continuation of a tradition up to a point. That said Steuart Bedford is not a Britten clone. In the Nocturne he pulls more out of the orchestra, soloists and texture than Britten did and Bedford has the luxury of Langridge’s exact pitching as well as the wider voice this work needs. Pears is a bit light against the lower obbligato instruments whereas Langridge simultaneously has more push and subtlety, e.g. in the Wordsworth movement against Britten’s masterly timps. His versatility is also demonstrated in the Keats movement with glorious woodwind but whereas Pears skated over this Langridge and Bedford go a lot deeper. My only disappointment - very picky - is in the last (Shakespeare Sonnet 43) movement because Britten’s Decca engineers got a good thump from the bass drum after the brief string introduction. Collins/Naxos ignored the importance of this stroke. It’s only my opinion but by drawing all forces together in that last movement I believe that Britten wanted people to listen hard for the very good reason that Sonnet 43 is dense and is written in oxymoron form (look it up). The composer’s brilliance is to use that last movement as a move from night to light. The tenor part is passionate and although Pears-with-Britten Decca achieves the passion it does not quite match the ambiguity of the poem. Langridge and Bedford achieve this in a more gradual build up. We can read the sonnet and wonder if the ‘dreamer’ fell asleep after his revelation of love with doubt. The quiet close of the ‘Nocturne’ leaves us guessing.

Fanfare, July 2005

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Steuart Bedford
June 2005

The voice, for Britten, was as broad a canvas as the orchestra, and perhaps a more flexible one. A Naxos disc shared by Felicity Lott and Phyllis Bryn-Julson (a reissue of recordings originally released on the defunct Collins Classics label) includes two of the cycles heard in Mr. Bostridge's recital, but the differences in the weight and texture of the soprano and tenor voices - to say nothing of the considerable interpretive artistry here - make these performances more complementary than competitive. Still, the main draw of the Naxos disc is "Les Illuminations," Britten's ravishing Rimbaud cycle, in a vibrant, supple performance by Ms. Lott and, not incidentally, the strings of the English Chamber Orchestra, led by Steuart Bedford. A second Naxos disc (also by way of Collins) offers Philip Langridge's luminous, affecting accounts of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the powerful but less frequently heard "Nocturne" and Ann Murray's searingly characterized reading of "Phaedra."

Kevin Sutton
MusicWeb International, March 2005

"Naxos continue to reissue the catalogue of the late lamented Collins Classics label at their more attractive price. This is cause for rejoicing as Collins was a label superb in its quality of production and varied and eclectic in its choice of repertoire. Particularly admirable was Steuart Bedford’s ongoing project to record the works of Benjamin Britten, a composer with whom he is most closely associated.

I have often contended that there are times in which Britten’s own vast catalogue of recordings of his own music did as much harm as good to the progress of newer and different interpretations of the music. It seems as though he and Pears’ word on the works has been regarded as the definitive. I contend, however, that even the composer can have but one idea about his music, and the glory of the art form is in its ever-living and ever-present state of flux.

Now that both Britten and his chosen interpreter Peter Pears have been gone for more than twenty years, it is indeed time to reassess the music and find new and equally interesting things to say about it, even if it differs considerably from that which the composer and his friend laid down on disc.

To that end, we can be most grateful to Steuart Bedford and his circle of superb musicians who have brought us these, dare I say, peerless interpretations of three of Britten’s major works for voice and orchestra.

Opening with the striking Serenade, a work that I believe is unmatched in its perfection of the wedding between text and music. Right from the first note, we know that we are in for something stunning through Frank Lloyd’s breathtakingly flawless horn playing. The haunting solo played on the horn’s natural harmonics and thus sometimes sounding eerily “out of tune” is Britten’s ever-present symbol of innocence. It is played to absolute perfection. Langridge is a first rate interpreter of the vocal line as well, being at times forcefully dramatic and downright frightening as in “This-ae night;” agile and spirited in the “Hymn to Diana,” and hauntingly beautiful in the closing “Sonnet.” This is by far and away the very finest performance of this, one of my favorite works to both hear and sing, that I have ever heard.

The gems keep appearing in the Nocturne a work of similar vocal and orchestral colors (albeit with the addition of winds and brass) and of the same picturesque text settings that are typical of Britten. Again, Langridge finds the meat of the texts, bringing out all of the subtleties of the poetry with finely crafted, highly refined vocal shadings and a lovely clarity of tone. It is also noteworthy that Langridge can sometimes intentionally forsake beautiful singing for its own merit to serve the texts when they call for high drama. That is not to say that his singing is ugly, it is just appropriately shaded as fits the needs of the music.

Ann Murray is also a formidable actress in the late cantata Phaedra, a work dating from the last months of the composer’s life and originally intended for Dame Janet Baker. Ms. Murray’s rich mezzo-soprano is perfect for this woeful tale of inappropriate love and the anguish that is causes its heroine. Of particular merit is Ms. Murray’s ability to make the texts understood, a big challenge in this work that spans the singer’s entire range and is often doubled by strong and colorful orchestrations.

Steuart Bedford, perhaps Britten’s greatest living interpreter provides absolutely first-rate accompaniments to his soloists through the vehicles of the English Chamber Orchestra and the Northern Sinfonia. Bedford is in total sympathy with both the texts and the music, and he completely understands Britten’s psychology and his mode of expression.

Round this disc off with fine program notes and superb sound quality and you have a must-have for any lover of fine singing. Recommended without a moment’s hesitation."

Em Marshall
MusicWeb International, March 2005

"A second Naxos disc of Britten’s stunning song-cycles Serenade and Nocturne makes a fearsome rival for their other (1996) version with Adrian Thompson and David Lloyd-Jones/Bournemouth Sinfonietta (8.553834) [not reviewed]. Philip Langridge stars on the new disc, which was actually recorded two years earlier in 1994 and originally released on Collins Classics. Here, Steuart Bedford conducts the English Chamber Orchestra and Northern Sinfonia in very different, but equally excellent, performances of these works.

Both Naxos discs commence with the Serenade. Frank Lloyd is the horn soloist on the Bedford disc, and opens with a dreamy rendition of the Prologue, effective but lacking the radiance of, for example, David Pyatt on the EMI disc (EMI Eminence 565899-2) with Nick Cleobury conducting the Britten Sinfonia. Langridge's beginning in the Pastoral is characteristically thought-provoking. Tying in with the text "The day’s grown old", one presumes, he launches in with an intentionally faltering, faint and slightly weak sound. Whilst one might prefer the cleaner, clearer, punchier start of John Mark Ainsley on the EMI disc, there is no doubt that this is an atmospheric device, and sets the scene well for the rest of the cycle. From the start, both Ainsley and Thompson create a prettier sound, particularly Ainsley, who invests the work with great lyrical beauty and exquisite enunciation. Thompson comes across as more precious and dainty than Ainsley and lacks both his and Langridge's gravitas, and in places is in danger of being drowned out by the orchestra. The balance in the Bedford Naxos disc is much better. Yet in a way, the sound that Ainsley and Thompson produce is almost too comely and charming – Langridge's gritty, harsher rendition is more realistic and efficacious. This is even more apparent in the third track, Nocturne, where Ainsley is noticeably lighter and has greater clarity, yet Langridge’s gorgeous, slightly huskier, timbre seems more appropriate. Thompson is here worth listening to for his lovely word painting on "dying", which is wonderfully evocative.

The differences between these styles really comes to the fore in Elegy. Langridge makes the word "sick" sound sick. His "howling" howls. He emphasises the dissonances, and the whole song is - quite correctly - presented as evil, dark, and menacing. Listen to the way he sings "found out thy bed" and "rose" – more forceful, brutal, harsh and aggressive than his competition and making for a more powerful and convincing version. Ainsley and Thompson, on the other hand, sing a completely different song – mournful and lugubrious rather than savage, corrupt and nefarious. Frank Lloyd, meanwhile does not particularly help enhance Langridge’s sinister atmosphere. The swoops between his notes are too clean, fast and not pronounced enough, and a tiny bit more portamento wouldn’t go amiss. Although he increases in wildness to become suitably violent just before the voice enters, and although the slide on his final note is good - and more protracted than in other versions - he is still not as scarily chilling as David Pyatt on Nick Cleobury's EMI disc.

Langridge adopts an appropriately ghostly voice for the Dirge - dramatic and dark. This track is fantastically performed. Langridge sustains a brilliantly controlled build-up until that sublime and stunning climax two thirds of the way through when horn enters. Langridge manages to come across as both unrelenting and imploring at the same time, returning to an eerie and ethereal sound at the end. On the earlier Naxos disc, Thompson starts off very quiet and gentle and takes a fair time to build the wildness up, which means that when he finally lets rip at the climax it is quite overwhelming. In the Hymn, Langridge is duly light and vivid and endows his words with great characterisation and word painting, as does Ainsley. Langridge’s softening to a whisper in places here is particularly effective.

The English Chamber Orchestra, who have been brilliant throughout, really show their colours in the Sonnet, creating a beautifully translucent sound, while Langridge is aptly dramatic. Frank Lloyd is mysterious, unrushed and moving in the Epilogue and has the edge on his competitors – Pyatt, who is a little too loud and Thompson, who is slightly too fast.

Nocturne ensues, with a hair-raising Langridge, and an umbriferous and transparent orchestra in On a poet’s lips I slept. Again, whereas Langridge is more chilling, Ainsley is more lyrical and beautiful, and Thompson more languorous. Then an exciting Below the thunders of the upper deep with a fantastically wild Langridge, whose dark and deep timbre is perfect here, and an alluringly light, dreamy and romantic Encinctured with a twine of leaves. True to character, Langridge is still a little bleaker than Ainsley, who comes across as more graceful, supple and lithe, and Thompson, who is so smooth and gentle that he floats effortlessly. Langridge’s idiosyncratic, intelligent and individual singing enhances Midnight’s bell goes ting, ting, ting, ting with superb word-painting for the cat’s mew. Whereas Ainsley and Thompson sing the word "Mew", Langridge actually imitates a cat’s cry, and not many other singers I’ve heard have sounded as gorgeously (scarily?!) feline as Langridge. Similarly, he turns But that night on my bed I lay into a terrifying nightmare of a song, with a petrifying, commanding, powerful voice; listen to the way he sings "September massacres" - utterly brilliant. Yet the last words of the song, which many other singers, Ainsley included, sing, and some half-speak, half sing (Thompson, for example), Langridge has the courage to half-cry, half-wail out – "Sleep no more!", in a devastatingly shocking, paralysing and intensely stunning yet steely version.

Langridge continues to emphasise the other-worldly element of the work in She sleeps on soft, last breaths, accentuating the dissonances and incorporating excellent word-painting (for example, on "Not afraid of their footfall"), with a harsh, black tone, where other singers are more delicate and lyrical. This overtone of menace and threat continues in What is more gentle than a wind in summer, which is possibly a little too heavy and dark and has a slightly inappropriately sinister air, exaggerated by Langridge’s slow pace. Ainsley and Thompson, meanwhile, are more buoyant, romantic and poetic, and transform it into a far more pleasant song, without any ominous overtones.

As a general rule, Langridge takes these song cycles a fair bit faster than the others, therefore giving the works greater drive and clout. His voice is less silky-smooth than Ainsley’s and Thompson’s, and actually suits these works better, to my mind, than theirs. Whilst Ainsley brings beauty of tone and Thompson fantastic enunciation, Langridge endues the pieces with greater power and is more shocking, chilling, moving and menacing than the others. One may not always agree with his interpretation of the music, and sometimes his experimental touches can seem a little out of place (the opening of Pastoral, for instance, or the strange emphasis on the word "candle" in "candle-light" in the Serenade’s Dirge), but he constantly fascinates, challenges and excites interest. His performances are never boring but always interpret the work in a fresh and original way, opening it to re-evaluation. The orchestras in all three recordings are first-rate and offer sympathetic and beautifully played accompaniment, although the orchestra is more prominent in the Lloyd-Jones’ Naxos version (possibly slightly too much so).

I have concentrated on comparing these two song cycles to the Ainsley and Thompson ones as I felt that these offered the stiffest competition of all modern recordings, but there are other recordings that have much to commend them, including, not least, Britten himself and Pears o

Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, January 2005

"At least on disc, Frank Lloyd is a remarkably under-rated player in the UK, so it is good to have his Britten Serenade on disc as a reminder of his stature. The Prologue for solo horn is here truly beautiful - the sounding ‘C’ (the second pitch we hear) is perfectly placed, and every succeeding note is carefully placed. The flat natural harmonic (sounding D natural near the end) retains Britten’s intention as expressive effect; too often it just sounds out of tune.

Philip Langridge needs no introduction, of course. His sound is quintessentially English, his phrasing entirely natural. Hear how he liltingly teases the words, ‘A little, little flock’, for example. More importantly, the two soloists work well together, something particularly apparent in the second song, ‘Nocturne’, with the horn imitating a bugle’s calls and those calls’ echoes.

Of course there is a great feeling that this music ‘belongs’ to Peter Pears ... and Dennis Brain, for that matter. How laudable that Langridge makes the ‘hunting’ movement, paradoxically named ‘Hymn’, all his own. The nimble-tongued Lloyd makes the horn’s pyrotechnics, for such they are, sound easy.

It is true that this account does not plumb the depths of the aforementioned Pears/Brain account with the Boyd Neel String Orchestra (currently on Decca British Music Collection 468 801-2 coupled with Walton’s Façade). Langridge/Lloyd do not quite capture Britten’s all-important darker side … nevertheless this remains an involving, captivating performance.

The couplings are all-important, and Naxos offers the Op. 60 Nocturne and one of Britten’s most interesting scores, Phaedra. The Nocturne is a setting of eight poems by Shelley, Tennyson, Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare. Instead of one solo obbligato instrument Britten highlights different instruments to impart a distinct colour to each poet. The harmonic language is more advanced in this work, making the long, aching vocal lines even more demanding, a challenge Langridge rises to magnificently. There is wit here, too. The capricious, mock-evil ‘Below the thunders of the deep’, with its slithering bassoon representing the Kraken, is a lovely divertissement between the first movement and the hypnotic, harp-flecked third.

Britten’s aural imagination is the stuff of legend and nowhere is this as well demonstrated as in this movement, with its sparse scoring. The horn’s entrance, marking the beginning of ‘Midnight’s bells’ seems retrospectively inevitable, while in the context of the present disc links Op. 60 to Op. 31. This work demands more exposure in the concert hall, surely? The sheer aching loneliness of the cor anglais ‘She sleeps on soft, last breaths’ alone should be enough to make it register unforgettably in the memory. Throughout, the Northern Sinfonia loses nothing to the ECO.

Phaedra, Op. 93, received a famous recording by Janet Baker - interestingly, with this orchestra and conductor; it is now appended to the present Decca incarnation of the composer’s own recording of The Rape of Lucretia on Decca London 425 666-2. The subject of forbidden love struck a chord with Britten, whose score (Britten’s last major work) is a masterpiece.

In her portrayal of the protagonist’s emotions, Ann Murray loses out to no-one. Her swooping lines at ‘Phaedra in all her madness stands before you’ (track 20) convey precisely that.

Throughout Britten tracks Phaedra’s shifting, desperate emotions unerringly. Bedford ensures the ECO is no less chameleon-like in its responses.

Superb music, expertly played, then. It is marvellous that the Collins catalogue is once more available; even more marvellous, of course, that it comes with a bargain basement price tag!"

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group