Here we have reissues of song cycles from the remarkable series of Britten performances originally on the now-defunct Collins Classics, led by Britten specialist Steuart Bedford. (Indeed, in 1975 he conducted the world première of 'Phaedra' with Janet Baker as the mezzo-soprano soloist.) These performances were contained on separate CDs when they first came out in the early 1990s. This one contains the two tenor/orchestra song cycles, 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings,' and 'Nocturne,' sung gorgeously by Philip Langridge, as well as the Ann Murray performance of 'Phaedra.' The English Chamber Orchestra, long associated with the music of Britten and the official orchestra of his Aldeburgh Festival, provides the orchestral accompaniments. (I spell all this out because at the time of this writing Amazon has made a mess of listing the musicians involved in these performances.)
There have been many recordings of the 'Serenade,' starting with Peter Pears's with Britten conducting and Dennis Brain playing the complex horn part. More recently there was a terrific performance by tenor John Mark Ainsley. Langridge's performances of both 'Serenade' and 'Nocturne' are more dramatically apt that Ainsley's, I believe. He uses more vocal shading and acts more with the voice without his sound ever becoming unmusical; his diction is a miracle of clarity as well. In 'Elegy,' for instance, when he sings the word 'sick,' he actually sounds sick, whereas Ainsley seems simply to sing the word as any other. This sort of shaping is heard throughout, and considering the heavy dramatic freight of the marvelous poetry in both this cycle and 'Nocturne' (which is a younger brother, on might say, of 'Serenade'), that is entirely admirable. He is one of the few I've ever heard to actually sound like a cat on the word 'mew' in the Nocturne's 'Midnight's bells go ting, ting, ting, ting.' And yet it is entirely musical. Frank Lloyd, the hornist in the Serenade, is a musician previously unknown to me, but his playing is wonderful. He does not have to take a back seat to either Dennis Brain or Dale Clevenger in their earlier recordings of this marvelous horn part.
Ann Murray fills large shoes when she sings the part premièred (and written for) Dame Janet Baker. Yet she does a fine job* with this rather more etiolated song cycle from Britten's final period. The cycle tells the story of Racine's Phèdre in Robert Lowell's verse translation and Murray's Phaedra becomes an impassioned, even wild, character in this performance.. Although full texts are included for 'Serenade' and 'Nocturne,' for some strange reason the text for 'Phaedra' is not included. A shame, although Murray's diction is clear enough that one can catch most of the words.
Although this issue is at super-budget price, it is worthy to stand beside any prior recordings of these Britten song cycles, and at this price the nod would, for many buyers, go to it.
* Addendum: I've just heard the relatively new recording of 'Phaedra' with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, accompanied by Kent Nagano, and it simply blows away Murray's performance. Incredible singing, acting, diction, orchestral accompaniment. My strong recommendation of the other two pieces stands.