Notes and Editorial Reviews
To coin a phrase: new version, new perceptions. It is strange how listening in quick succession to the same passage can arrestingly highlight differences of approach. The Philips set is in almost every respect immediate and present, almost to a fault. As compared with the Virgin Classics for Hickox, the voices are advantageously forward, yet there are few if any attempts at suggesting the perspectives you hear on the six-year-old Virgin Classics (made in 1990, issued in 1993), even more on the 30-year-old Decca for the composer, so evocatively directed by John Culshaw. For instance, on Decca, Puck seems to be everywhere, on Virgin he tends to stay in one place. On the new version you are in the front stalls listening to an enjoyable concert
– this recording was made in conjunction with a performance at London’s Barbican Hall – with little attempt to simulate a stage.
That may have in some way influenced the often leisurely pacing of Davis’s reading. Everything is heard with great clarity, the sensuousness of Britten’s ravishing score, with all its mysterious harmonies and sonorities, is fully realized, action and reaction among the singers are keenly heard, yet something of the midsummer magic so naturally conjured up under Britten’s direction eludes Davis and his team. On Decca we hear this music fresh-minted, unadorned; in Davis’s hands the work is viewed through a tougher, more modern prism, something that those who know the original set will need to become accustomed to.
One wonders if any members of the LSO today were in the orchestra under the composer back in 1966: they are certainly as acute if not more so in their playing than their predecessors. As for pacing, if you try either Oberon’s “I know a bank” or Tytania’s solo “Come, now a roundel and a fairy song” you will immediately hear how much tauter is Britten’s approach, Davis allowing his singers more licence. In the case of McNair this gives her space to develop what is a knowingly sophisticated approach to her role, even more evident in her sensual account of the Act 2 solo “Hail, mortal, hail”. Her singing is in itself lovely, portamento used to suggest sensuality, but it is an earthly reading where Elizabeth Harwood for Britten suggests a more other-worldly Queen of the Fairies.
Similarly the luscious, vibrant voice of the American countertenor Brian Asawa is very different from Bowman’s more acerbic tone (Hickox), or Deller’s ethereal delicacies (Britten). Like McNair’s singing, Asawa’s, taken on its own terms, is most seductive, certainly a new look at the familiar, but disconcerting at first hearing. Puck is also upfront, not so much puckish as rough-hewn.
With Bottom we meet another thought-provoking interpretation. Lloyd makes the weaver sound more high-born than his predecessors. This is almost a noble craftsman, with no hint of the rustic portrayed by Donald Maxwell (Hickox), or – unforgettably – by Owen Brannigan, the role’s creator (Britten), who savours the text so lovingly. Lloyd scores with his splendidly resonant account of “O grin-look’d night” in the play. One thing is sure: there has never been a more amusing Flute than Ian Bostridge (hilarious as Thisbe) or a better sung Quince than Gwynne Howell.
Another plus for the new set is the casting of the lovers with young singers in their early prime, a great advance on the Hickox set, a smaller one on the Britten. In particular, Philogene’s ripe mezzo as Hermia and Ainsley’s ardent tenor as Lysander stand out as ideal interpretations. The Quarrel and Reconciliation Quartets are done with total conviction on all sides. Neither Hippolyta nor Theseus matches the regal authority of Helen Watts and Shirley-Quirk on the composer’s set.
I derived a great deal of pleasure from the newcomer with its exemplary recording, in terms of forward, full-toned sound, and careful preparation on all sides. It replaces the Hickox as my recommendation for a modern set.
-- Alan Blyth, Gramophone [12/1996]
Reviewing original release of this recording
Works on This Recording
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 64 by Benjamin Britten
Sara Rey (Soprano),
Brian Asawa (Countertenor),
Mark Tucker (Tenor),
Carl Ferguson (Spoken Vocals),
Ian Bostridge (Tenor),
David Newman (Treble),
John Mark Ainsley (Tenor),
Paul Whelan (Baritone),
Brian Bannatyne-Scott (Bass),
Hilary Summers (Alto),
Gwynne Howell (Bass),
Stephen Richardson (Bass),
Sylvia McNair (Soprano),
Robert Lloyd (Bass),
Neal Davies (Baritone),
Claudia Conway (Soprano),
Matthew Long (Treble),
Ruby Philogene (Mezzo Soprano),
Janice Watson (Soprano)
Sir Colin Davis
London Symphony Orchestra,
New London Children's Choir
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1960; England
Date of Recording: 12/1995
Venue: Barbican Center, London, England
Length: 148 Minutes 20 Secs.
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