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Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream / Hickox

Release Date: 11/09/2010 
Label:  Erato   Catalog #: 40621   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Penelope WalkerDella JonesJill GomezNicholas Watson,   ... 
Conductor:  Richard Hickox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of London SinfoniaTrinity Boys Choir
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 34 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Britten wrote nothing more sensuous, indeed more sensual than the scene in Act 2 here between Tytania and the transformed Bottom—or so it seems when it is magnificently interpreted as on this new set. Hickox and his orchestra, aided by a superbly lifelike recording at Abbey Road (producer: Andrew Keener), bring out the genius of the scoring, melody and harmony, at once so spare and so lush and, literally, so magical. Lilian Watson is a peach ofaTytania (though not as ethereal as Elizabeth Harwood on the Britten/Decca Set), Donald Maxwell a Bottom to match the unforgotten Brannigan on the older set. This is the still centre of a work that, like all Britten's opera, indeed all great operas, has its own individual colour and character, none Read more more so than this one, which lives eternally in its own enchanted world. Helped of course by modern techniques, Hickox rivals the composer's efforts—as he did in the War Requiem—able in the studio to equal the atmospheric evocation of the fairy and human worlds that he achieved at Sadler's Wells Theatre in the live performances that preceded this recording in the autumn of 1990.

Everything that concerns the fairy world is excellently realized in this reading. Bowman, the Oberon since he burst on the scene in this part some 25 years ago, at last has his interpretation recorded. Not as other-worldly as the legendary Alfred Deller, the role's creator and interpreter on the BrittenlDecca set, Bowman brings a more potent, more theatrical presence to the part that suits it well, and here is is in excellent voice, but he cannot equal Deller's diaphonous tone. Both interpretations are valid and convincing. The Puck (pointedly moving from one stereo image to the other) is vivid, more earthy but without the variety of his better-spoken Decca counterpart. There's a delightful chorus of fairies, but they aren't so well disciplined as Britten's group. Assorted youngsters satisfactorily complete this side of things on the new set.

Where the Mortals are concerned things are not as happy. None of the four lovers finds an interpreter to match those on the Britten recording (the unrivalled quartet of Harper, Veasey, Pears and Hemsley, all at the height of their appreciable powers singing gloriously), quite simply because their voices aren't as pleasing as those of their counterparts. Dramatically, as one would expect after stage performances, they are well in the picture—the quarrel goes excitingly, with Hickox on good form—here but Gomez and Jones hardly sound the young things intended. All-round words are more sharply etched on the older version.

The groundlings, led by Maxwell's aforementioned and endearing Bottom, are a nicely characterized bunch—even if Bryson's Quince hasn't the vocal character of Norman Lumsden's (Decca). Adrian Thompson has been an indispensable Flute in several stagings of the work and here demonstrates how accomplished and amusing he is in the part, especially in his guise as Thisbe, yet the unforgotten Kenneth Macdonald (Decca) has the edge in purely vocal terms. The play of the mechanicals, which can outstay its welcome towards the end of a longish evening in the theatre, can be fully appreciated, at leisure in the home, for being an inspiredjeu d'espril of special Britten brilliance, the many parodies all carrying the composer's own signature. Norman Bailey and Penelope Walker, the latter heard too seldom on disc and elsewhere, make a properly authoritative pair of rulers—one wants their parts to be more substantial.

Comparisons between Britten and Hickox reveal the composer as the tauter, more precise conductor of his own piece with the notable LSO of 1966 on inspired form—Britten takes ten minutes less overall. The Decca cannot, of course, compete in clarity of detail, refulgence or depth of sound with the digital newcomer, but Culshaw's production is just as atmospheric, perhaps more so, than Keener's. In spite of my reservations, the essential feeling of midsummer madness is caught in the new performance and the marvellous construction and inspiration of the great score is revealed. Pressed to give advice, I would suggest that those who possess the Britten need not trouble to replace it. Those who want to add the work to their collection should try to sample both versions before making a decision. They may then want both. And don't forget that the famous Hall/HaitinkiGlyndebourne production is available on video as an adjunct to the audio-only recordings. One thing is sure: you shouldn't deprive yourself of the pleasure of hearing this, the most purely and readily enjoyable of Britten's operas.

-- A. B., Gramophone [8/1993] Reviewing original release
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Works on This Recording

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 64 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Penelope Walker (Mezzo Soprano), Della Jones (Mezzo Soprano), Jill Gomez (Soprano),
Nicholas Watson (Treble), Roger Bryson (Baritone), Adrian Thompson (Tenor),
Andrew Mead (Treble), John Graham-Hall (Tenor), Simon Hart (Treble),
Gregory Pierre (Treble), Richard Suart (Bass), Andrew Gallacher (Bass),
Robert Horn (Tenor), Dexter Fletscher (Spoken Vocals), Donald Maxwell (Baritone),
Norman Bailey (Baritone), Henry Herford (Baritone), James Bowman (Countertenor),
Lillian Watson (Soprano)
Conductor:  Richard Hickox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of London Sinfonia,  Trinity Boys Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1960; England 
Date of Recording: 11/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, Engl 
Length: 154 Minutes 26 Secs. 
Language: English 

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