Britten Opera excerpts and Folksongs
Richard Abram of EMI is to be congratulated on assembling this fascinating and historically essential document. Andrew Walter and Paul Baily are to be thanked for the loving care they have shown in transferring these performances by creator artists. They are obviously of the utmost importance. Then the booklet contains invaluable essays by Eric Crozier, Nancy Evans, John Lucas (Goodall's biographer) and Philip Reed (leading Britten archivist) on the genesis of the operas and recordings. We learn from Lucas that Walton, on the British Council committee which sponsored the Lucretia discs, wanted to record only four sides of the work, while Bliss thought about half the score should be recorded. In the event, about two-thirds was committed to disc. One side has remained unpublished until now; the others have long been unavailable (they were briefly reissued on an unsatisfactory Music for Pleasure LP—5/69, nla).
Ferrier and Evans shared the title-role in the first run of performances at Glyndebourne in 1946. Lucas now reveals that Goodall preferred Evans in the part. However that may be, the two singers—who Evans tells us here were boon companions, both being ''Lancashire lasses''—presented complementary interpretations (Ferrier's anguished performance has been intermittently available on 'off-the-air' discs). Evans is infinitely moving, both in the timbre of her lovely mezzo and in her verbal accents—the simplicity of her Orchid aria would melt the hardest heart. That sterling artist Frederick Sharp (I recall him as a superb Onegin at Sadler's Wells Opera) is a fiery, priapic Tarquinius. Maybe the refined vowels of Ritchie and Nielsen now sound anachronistic for servant roles, but both sing finely. Best of all are the Choruses of Cross and Pears, still unrivalled in their roles, revelling in the colourful imagery of Ronald Duncan's libretto. Pears is magnificent both in the Ride to Rome and the Sprechgesang of Tarquinius's stealthy approach to Lucretia's chamber.
The sad story of how the attempt to record the premiere of Grimes in 1945 was bungled is retold here by Lucas, but in 1948, after the first performances at Covent Garden, EMI made some amends by recording Pears and Cross in substantial portions of their original roles. Britten vetoed their issue at the time, for unknown reasons, but relented in 1972 to allow eight (of 11) sides to be included in HMV's three-LP ''Stars of the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells'' (a much-prized, long-deleted album).
Now the three unissued sides appear for the first time, allowing us to hear Cross in Ellen's ''Let her among you'' solo from the opera's opening scene, Pears in Grimes's ''Great Bear and Pleiades'' monologue of Act 1 scene 2 and the visionary solo from the hut scene in Act 2. Needless to say, these are revelatory additions to what we already have. Nobody, not even Pears in the complete 1958 Decca set (4/86), has sung these arias with such beauty of tone and such consummate mastery in welding voice to words, every accentuation subtly placed, to achieve a searingly truthful portrayal. It is wonderful to hear again, and now in much cleaner sound, the rest of the extracts, most of all the Ellen/Grimes confrontation in Act 2 and Grimes's mad scene in Act 3, both quite heart-rendingly done. As I wrote in 1972, these excerpts ''represent the work at white heat, straight off the stage''.
Goodall shows his empathy with and command of both scores. The orchestral playing isn't always as exact as one might wish, but the spirit of the orchestral contribution is all it should be.
As a substantial bonus on these generously filled discs, we have all the folk-song arrangements that Pears and Britten recorded on 78s for both Decca and EMI, including three originally issued only in the USA, and three French songs made by Wyss and Britten in 1943 (previously unpublished—they are a delight). Some of these, such as
As I hope I have made clear, this is a 'must' for any lover of Britten's music, a reissue that shows as much care and dedication in preparation as is evinced by the performers themselves. An exhilarating, pioneering period in British music is here suitably chronicled.'