Déjà Review: this review was first published in March 2005 and the recording is still available.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op 31 (1943)
Nocturne, Op 60 (1958)
Phaedra, Op 93 (1975)
Philip Langridge, (tenor); Ann Murray (mezzo); Frank Lloyd (horn)
English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford (Serenade, Phaedra), Northern Sinfonia/Steuart Bedford (Nocturne)
rec. 1994, Henry Wood Hall, London, UK
Naxos 8.557199 [64]

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). 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 SerenadeFrank 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 on Decca London and on Pearl (wonderful!), Tear and Marriner on EMI (Serenade only), Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Bryden Thomson on Chandos (Serenade only) and Prégardien and Vanska on BIS. Bostridge can be found singing the Serenade on EMI, and Martyn Hill with Hickox on The Classics.

Britten’s atmospheric and brilliant “dramatic cantata” Phaedra – his last major vocal work – concludes the disc, with Ann Murray as the tragic heroine. The words are taken from Robert Lowell’s verse translation of Racine’s ‘Phèdre’, rather than Euripides’ ‘Hippolytus’. Ann Murray has a pleasingly bright voice, clear and mature. She sings this part very well, giving it great characterisation (listen to the word “murderer”, sung so full of venom and hatred). Rough and harsh in places, she acts a fittingly wild and impassioned Phaedra.

Yet there is one outstanding rival for this Bedford/Murray version, and that is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson on Elatus, with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano. Lieberson’s sound is clearer and more immediate than Murray’s, her voice fuller and more mature. Lieberson is more weighed down by misery and so, for example, says “murderer” with heavy, oppressed grief, rather than the bitter malice of Murray. Again her “Fool, I love you” is a whispered, personal anguished muttering as opposed to the more emotional outbursts of Murray. These more introspective and personal soliloquies, I feel, are closer to the spirit of the piece, and Lieberson’s heavier, more mature voice and more depressed touch seems to suit the work better than Murray’s shriller, lighter and wilder air. Towards the end of the work it is Lieberson who captures the dramatic tension most successfully in the lines “I’ve chosen a slower way to end my life – Medea’s poison; chills already dart along my boiling veins and squeeze my heart”, in a version that is more moving, intense and passionate than Murray’s much colder, more sinister rendition. Again, Lieberson’s “I stand alone and seem to see my outraged husband fade and waver” is remarkably poignant, atmospheric and affecting. The sound of the Hallé is far more sheer under Nagano’s baton than the ECO under Bedford. So while I would personally opt for Lieberson and Nagano, this Murray version is a perfectly excellent alternative – as is Janet Baker, also with Steuart Bedford, on London (with The Rape of Lucretia).

It is rather curious to programme the Serenade and Nocturne with Phaedra rather than Les Illuminations, but I am delighted that this less-well known work gets a look-in here. While all these works are available in other versions, some of which could be argued to be at least marginally better, but certainly very different from these, this is overall a superlative disc, with flawless and very characterful performances, and one that cannot recommend highly enough.

Em Marshall-Luck

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