Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Fairy Queen—complete? Well, hardly that, and I shall make this my prime, and only serious complaint: it is not nearly complete enough. What is on the disc is so delightful that we could do with all the music which Purcell squandered—as it now seems—on a strange adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is amongst Purcell's finest work and as such needs no excuse for being given complete, although it is not, of course, very difficult to see why Britten should have re-arranged and cut it for a concert performance. It is too long for most occasions, and needs a large number of soloists to preserve any semblance of its dramatic nature. It is extremely unlikely to gain currency in its original form, since the play for which
it was a great deal more than incidental music, is impossible to restore to the repertoire. But none of this matters too much when it comes to a recording. We are not expecting an evening at the theatre; we have no severe limitation on our time (or if we have we can be our own selectors of the best numbers) ; and if the gramophone companies cannot indulge in limitless expenditure, it seems unlikely that they are quite so closely budgeted as inevitably are the concert organisations throughout Britain which might perform The Fairy Queen.
This homily completed, it remains to catalogue the delights which are considerable. The first thing to be said is that although Britten has put the music in an order not Purcell's, he has not done very much else to it. The accretions include some additional trumpeting in "Hark th'echoing air", which in spite of Imogen Holst's special pleading in the handsome booklet which goes with the set, is not really necessary. The trumpet plays a kind of sinfonia at the opening of the piece and a few bars at the end when the choir also joins in; there is no reason to assume echo effects and fillers for gaps in melody (and actually the 'repairs' stick out from the original surprisingly clearly, in spite of Britten's skill). The alterations are most noticeable in the comic "Dialogue" between Coridon and Mopsa, apparently being made so that Peter Pears can join in as the lecherous shepherd. This is no doubt highly amusing in the concert hall; whether it will wear as well on disc is another matter. There are some changes of instrumentation—an obbligato oboe instead of a violin in "The Plaint", and occasionally the substitution of wind for strings. But all sound remarkably convincing and in no way unstylistic.
None of this matters very much, anyway, when you take into account the quality of the playing and singing which is nearly all outstandingly good. The quiet music is perhaps the best performed. The aria with a chromatic ground bass "Next Winter comes slowly" finds John Shirley-Quirk in excellent form, and Norma Burrowes sings the song for Night exquisitely. Jennifer Vyvyan is also very good in "The Plaint" although I feel that in ensemble she is not really well balanced with Mary Wells, for the voices are not quite the same kind.
But the main attraction of this recording must be Britten's conducting. I am not one who goes with Miss Holst's faith in a composer's intuition about other men's music, even when they obviously love it and have been strongly influenced by it. They are just as capable of doing frightful things as are lesser men. Nevertheless, Britten does understand Purcell, and what is more, performs it con amore. Possibly from a technical point of view, one of those excellent conductors of London's many chamber choirs might get a cleaner tone from the Ambrosian Opera Chorus, which is at times slightly 'fuzzy': and there is no new light to be shed on the brilliant trumpet pieces which any competent conductor capable of instilling precision in the band will make highly enjoyable. The gain from Britten comes in the more introspective pieces. The accompaniment of "See even Night," the "Rondeau" and the "Chaconne" are the sort of music in which he makes the orchestra play like a genuine chamber-music group (the title 'chamber orchestra' does not by any means always imply this). They phrase elegantly, pay attention to nuance, produce good tone consistently, none of which can be taken for granted. So this is a highly enjoyable, well recorded set of records: buy it, can be the only advice.
-- Gramophone [1/1972]
reviewing the original LP release of The Fairy Queen
LS found much to impress him in this performance but in the last resort was disappointed by the Dido: "not until the last act does Janet Baker here find her real form". I am reluctant to be controversial here, but I found this a moving performance throughout. Undoubtedly her earlier recording of this role on L'Oiseau-Lyre combines radiant vocal freshness with an undoubtedly inspirational quality, but there is a maturity about the new Decca version that brings its own rewards. There are many other felicities in this new recording, not least Anna Reynolds's Sorceress and the "freshvoiced" London Opera Chorus... Certainly the new Decca performance has transferred vividly, the quality only marginally short of this company's very best in the matter of refinement, and with no lack of presence and projection.
-- Gramophone [11/1978]
reviewing an LP release of Dido and Aeneas
Works on This Recording
Fairy Queen, Z 629 by Henry Purcell
Norma Burrowes (Soprano),
Mary Wells (Soprano),
Ian Partridge (Tenor),
Charles Brett (Counter Tenor),
James Bowman (Counter Tenor),
Alfreda Hodgson (Mezzo Soprano),
John Shirley-Quirk (Baritone),
Owen Brannigan (Bass),
Jennifer Vyvyan (Soprano),
Peter Pears (Tenor)
English Chamber Orchestra,
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Written: 1692; England
Dido and Aeneas, Z 626 by Henry Purcell
Felicity Palmer (Soprano),
Robert Tear (Tenor),
Dame Janet Baker (Mezzo Soprano),
Alfreda Hodgson (Mezzo Soprano),
Peter Pears (Tenor),
Felicity Lott (Soprano),
Anna Reynolds (Mezzo Soprano),
Norma Burrowes (Soprano)
London Opera Chorus,
Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra
Written: 1689; England
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