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With thirteen discs of opera and six of vocal works, these two sets form a solid basis for a Britten collection. Each opera is either a first choice recording or a strong modern reading that deserves its place in the canon. I have already reviewed The Rape of Lucretia in these pages, (see Opera Now, March 2013), so I will just reiterate that Oliver Knussen’s conducting and the outstanding cast make it an instant classic. Bernard Haitink’s 1992 recording of Peter Grimes also maintains a consistently high level. The conductor takes some slow tempi but a palpable sense of tension underpins the performance and he and the Royal Opera House orchestra certainly give the Sea Interludes their full due. Anthony Rolfe Johnson is a relatively light-voiced Grimes, but although he lacks the heftof a Vickers he does compensate emotionally by sounding almost other-worldly, emphasising his separation from the community. Felicity Lott’s Ellen Orford is beautifully moulded, Thomas Allen is a sympathetic Balstrode and Sarah Walker’s Mrs Sedley avoids caricature.

Billy Budd is from a concert performance conducted by Daniel Harding (2007), the benefit being that the sound is vivid, with the converse problem of being slightly overwhelming at times. Harding marshals the forces of the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with aplomb. His Billy, Nathan Gunn, does convey a sense of purity and uncomplicated innocence, but two performances dominate – Ian Bostridge’s immaculate Vere and Gidon Saks’s thunderous Claggart. Bostridge also sings The Prologue/Quint in The Turn of the Screw, for me the standout recording of this set. Harding’s conducting offers clarity and his cast is exemplary. Joan Rodgers captures the Governess’s increasing sense of horror with her true and eloquent soprano. Jane Henschel is a stentorian Mrs Grose, Bostridge and Vivian Tierney make excellent ghosts, and Julian Leang and Caroline Wise are effective as Miles and Flora. The recording offers a masterclass in clear diction, of course aided by the lightness of the score, but worthy of praise as it means that the performance transcends its medium and the narrative values are truly gripping.

Alas, the same cannot be said for A Midsummer Night’s Dream under Richard Hickox, where I found it very difficult to decipher much of what was being sung (note that there are no enclosed libretti). Recorded in 1990, the cast is a roll-call of estimable British singers of the day and vocally they are highly assured. The City of London Sinfonia creates a magical sound world and the engineering is very effective. I find the opera misses the balance of magic and broad humour of the play, to the expense of the latter, so with the added layer of verbal incomprehensibility this performance quickly becomes irksome. No such problems for the recording of Paul Bunyan,which is great fun and highly recommended – Philip Brunelle’s conducting of the Plymouth Music Series has vigour and panache, and the idiomatic soloists relish their opportunities. A relative rarity and technically an operetta, in the studio it comes across more as a musical and rattles along with great pace and humour. The six discs of song are a mixed bag. Once again, Bostridge offers a lesson in stylishly accomplished singing and perfectly projected words in the Five Canticles. Elsewhere, Bostridge has good tenorial competition from Robert Tear and Neil Mackie. Tear’s voice is distinctive, stylish if not traditionally beautiful, but he is a highly communicative performer – he provides the Nocturne, Winter Words and some folksongs. Mackie has a more mellifluous and elegant tone, and sails with élan through the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and a selection of songs, including two rather delicious Schubert songs orchestrated by Britten.

I suppose the obvious ultimate tenor interpreter for many will be Peter Pears, represented here by The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and some Purcell, but I find his blanch-toned tenor verging on the unlistenable. In his Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Pears approaches Italian pronunciation in much the same way as Churchill did French, and the passion is leached from the music; but with the composer at the keyboard I must grudgingly admit that it is a pretty definitive performance. Elisabeth Söderström’s famed clarity of diction seems to desert her in her selection here and she is surprisingly put in the shade by Sarah Brightman, who sings some folksongs with touching sincerity, and whose slight but secure soprano suits the simplicity of these arrangements. Best is Heather Harper, whose lush tone sails through Les Illuminations to magnificent effect.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2013 - ©Rhinegold Publishing