This recording has had the field to itself for around a quarter of a century until very recently a competitor finally arrived with the issue of the Hickox version on Chandos. Perhaps that is a measure of its strengths.
This could be said to be the most personal of all Britten's operas. It was written sub specie mortis when he was very ill and he deliberately postponed major surgery until he had finished it. It was his last outpouring of love, both for the man and the voice of Peter Pears. And, of course the part fits Pears like a glove. It has to be admitted that, while Britten always wrote perfectly for his lover's unique voice, the parts themselves were not always such a good fit (Albert Herring, Lysander, even Grimes, for example). Aschenbach, on the other hand, is his part par excellence. The coolly objective aesthete, observing and chronicling beauty from the outside, who is brought low by a sudden eruption of the Dionysian side of his nature seems, on the evidence of his performances, to be a part Pears was born to play. No-one since has bettered him. Tear (available on video) takes objectivity too far: he stands outside the part and seems to be an observer of the observer. Rolfe Johnson is fine as the aesthete, less convincing in his moral decline. Langridge (on the new Chandos CD) is more a man of action than Pears, more ready to involve himself in life, and consequently his descent into physical and spiritual degeneration seems to have less distance to travel, heart-breaking though he makes the final scenes. His very different portrayal is probably the only credible rival to Pears.
Of course, Pears sings the part ravishingly, penetrating all the shades of meaning in the recitatives, climbing great heights in the more lyrical passages. The 'Phaedrus' aria is perhaps the most sublime and beautiful thing done by both composer and singer. This opera was certainly Pears' masterpiece, even if it remains debatable whether it was Britten's.
These days Alan Opie seems to have monopolised the multiple Mephistophelean baritone parts. And very good he is, too. But it is fascinating to return to the composer's original choice, John Shirley-Quirk. He really sings the part and demonstrates what a good 'sing' most of it is. The more extreme figures perhaps lack something of the character Opie invests them with (Fop or Entertainer, for example: Shirley-Quirk doesn't do camp!), but the Traveller, the Gondolier and the Hotel Manager benefit from the greater lyricism in the voice.
For the first time in the Decca canon of his operas (Noye excepted) Britten doesn't conduct this performance. By the time it was made, he was too ill. Steuart Bedford, who takes on the task, was fully briefed and the composer's intentions were no boubt made very clear throughout the sessions. It is, as it was in the theatre, as satisfying a reading as you could have expected from Britten himself. James Bowman as Apollo and all the bit-parts taken by members of the English Opera Group are admirably sung and performed.
A great performance of a great part in a great (if underrated) opera. Why hesitate?
on 29 October 2014
In the booklet Chris Palmer has pertinent things to say about the sexual climate of Britten's last opera, Death in Venice; but again these seem to become of less consequence as one listens to the music. Its potency and inventiveness create this opera's disturbing and intense atmosphere, each episode heightened dramatically by instrumental colouring. Steuart Bedford's conducting avoids any tendency towards the episodic as a result of the quick succession of scenes: under his direction each scene is fully integrated into a fluent and convincing whole.
This recording was made in 1973 while Britten was very ill and, as Donald Mitchell has related in an essay in the Cambridge University Press handbook on the opera, it omits Aschenbach's first recitative (''I have always kept a close watch over my development as a writer... ''), given as an optional cut in the vocal score, which was published after the recording was made, by which time Britten had changed his mind about this cut and wished it had been included in the recording. Pears's Aschenbach, a very English conception, is a masterly performance, matched by John Shirley-Quirk's assumption of the six characters who are Aschenbach's messengers of death and the Voice of Dionysus.
on 23 July 2013
Now recognised as one of the great operas of the 20th century, Britten's last opera is based on Thomas Mann's story of the conflict and tension between intellect and beauty, locked in a dance of death. Written for the tenor, Peter Pears, the anguish and rapture of a middle-aged dying man, haunted by a beatiful youth, are superbly captured. This original recording, dating back 40 years is as fresh as ever, demonstrating Britten's full musical genius.
on 24 April 2006
This opera works on two levels musically: the interior world of the novelist Gustav von Aschenbach is represented by a nervy piano accompaniment, the forbidden one of the boy Tadzio by a percussion orchestra. The music is restrained, somehow 'held back' reflecting Aschenbach's predicament at his longing for Tadzio so that when the orchestral climaxes do occur, they are all the more powerful by contrast.
The opera is also a musical depiction of Venice; its alleyways, the churches, the light. Just listen to the scene where Aschenbach opens his hotel window to look at the view. You are there, you can smell the air, hear the bells. It's a wonderfully evocative piece of writing.
A minor gripe: the games scene is overlong, but otherwise the performances are first rate.
One of Britten's greatest operatic achievements.