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This review is from: Britten: Phaedra/ a Charm of Lullabies (Audio CD)
I saw sarah Connelly and young Mr Gardner perform both Phaedra and A Charm of Lullabies at the Barbican and at the time I found both performances captivating. I was very excited, therefore when this recording appeared, and I waited several months to buy it from Amazon at a slighlty cheaper price. I really wish I liked it more than I do.
There is no question that Sarah Connelly is one of the finest singers around, but in Phaedra, she does not sound at her best. To me, anyway. She over-characterises, bending the vocal line out of shape to underline a dramatic point, and this makes the sound sometimes forced and unpleasant. If you want high drama, this performance will be for you, but if you value beauty of tone, then you should definitely go for the wonderful performance by Dame Janet Baker, for whom the piece was written,and whose singing is both dramatic and beautiful. And moving. Connelly doesn't, for me, find any of the tragedy in the last section, something Baker does with seemingly no effort and no need to overstate. Baker's Phaedra is reticent and dignified, and all the more hesartbreaking when she faces her death. Connelly is distraught, and a little mad, and much less moving in the final moments. Baker's performance is, however, only available as a 'filler' on her recording of Britten's under-rated Rape of Lucretia, but as this, too, is an unsurpassed performance, it is worth paying out for both. As for the work itself, Phaedra is a masterpiece, a condensed opera for one singer written at the very end of Britten's life. It is fierce, dramatic, and in the final section, ravishingly beautiful. Anyone who cares even a little for Britten's music should have this in their collection (and there are a number of recordings).
The rest of the disc os a mixed bag of very early and late Britten. A Charm of Lullabies, in a gorgeous orchestral version by Colin Matthews is, well, charming. The Sinfonietta, Britten's official Opus 1, is not his most ingratiating piece (the exactly contemporary Concerto for Violin and Viola is far more likeable) and the two string portraits are interesting but not characteristic. The orchestral version of Lachrymae, variations ('reflections')on a song by John Dowland, which completes the disc, is most certainly an important Britten work, challenging, perhaps, but demonstrating his absolute mastery and, like so many of his greatest works, in the final variation extremely moving. It was written in a hurry, but there is no sense at all that this is rushed, or merely note-spinning. This performance by Rysanov is superb.