This was the first stereo recording of The Turn of the Screw, created as the soundtrack for Petr Weigl's Czech film of the opera. Two versions were prepared from the 24-track recording; the film soundtrack, balanced to reflect what was on the screen and a version for commercial issue, balanced as conductor Colin Davis wished. The recording was produced by the great Erik Smith and this long overdue issue has a warmth and an immediacy that belies its age. Recorded in March 1981, this performance benefits from the superb contribution of the Royal Opera House's Principal Oboe, Janet Craxton, who died much too young a few months later.
It is a boldly-conceived performance, one of the great performances of this wonderful score, and severely underrated. It has been out of the catalogues too long; let's hope it's here to stay. When it was fist issued, Alan Blyth in Gramophone unhesitatingly recommended it in preference to Britten's own recording thanks to Erik Smith's "...beautifully-balanced, atmospheric recording which allows you to hear every detail of Britten's subtly wrought score." The Britten recording is a classic, featuring the cast for which it was written, each singer so highly individual and so closely identified with their roles that it's almost impossible not to hear their voices "behind" any those of any other version, but I wouldn't want to be without this very different version, again with many singers who worked closely with Britten.
The cast is headed by Helen Donath's Governess, warmer-toned and more sympathetic than Vyvyan but equally determined and totally inside a role she learned specifically for this recording. Philip Langridge is properly intriguing in the Prologue; Quint is Robert Tear, fascinating, enticing and bringing an unsettling neuroticism to his melismatic phrases. Miss Jessel is rivettingly sung by Heather Harper, who instinctively finds the right swooping, balefully sexual approach to this difficult role. Ava June is a clear-voiced Mrs Grose, easier at the top than most and Lillian Watson convinces as Flora, rightly avoiding any attempt to whiten the voice. Michael Ginn as Miles is probably the most controversial casting. There is little of the, innocent, piping treble in his voice; he's a more knowing, more mellifluous, an embryo Quint perhaps?
Davis's tempi aren't so different from Britten's, but the effect is quite different. The older version has a diamond-sharp clarity of vision allied to a certain buttoned-up Englishness, whereas Davis favours a slightly more dramatic approach and allows his singers a little more freedom in their interpretations. Both versions work equally well, both culminate in shattering final scenes and each has its own, inevitable logic.
I have already returned to this set a number of times because it is above all a truly beautiful reading with exquisite orchestral playing. I wouldn't be without the Britten original, but this version is a serious challenger.
One quibble: the full-size double jewel case is a waste of space; a slimline case would have easily accommodated the insert. A libretto is available online.