Britten: Phaedra, Op. 93

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Phaedra, Op. 93; A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41; Lachrymae, Op. 48a; Two Portraits; Sinfonietta, Op. 1
PERFORMER: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Maxim Rysanov (viola); BBC SO/Edward Gardner

Here’s a second compelling disc from Gardner and distinguished company to stoke flagging interest in the non-operatic Britten (though Phaedra is really an opera in 15 minutes). It takes us from the astonishingly accomplished 16-year-old’s Two Portraits to the arrangement of the Dowland-based Lachrymae the composer made in his final year, and Colin Matthews’s more-than-mere-transcription of A Charm of Lullabies.
The recording hails from the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s home base of Maida Vale; the one pity is that Chandos didn’t take the earlier, live Barbican performances of the vocal works. There I really thought the sliver of ice in the otherwise flawless mezzo-soprano soul of Sarah Connolly had melted: the monologue of Racine’s passion-inflamed queen in concert has to be taken to the limits, and Connolly, usually careful with her classy instrument, finally let rip in a defining performance. Here, restraint sets in again, at least compared with dedicatee Janet Baker’s majestic colouring of key words and phrases. Yet, very top notes apart, this is more luminous and offers clearer projection of Robert Lowell’s translation. The Charm is a total winner, wrapped by Matthews in string and woodwind sleep-music so familiar from the Nocturne and phrased by Connolly with alternate tenderness and edginess.
Maxim Rysanov compels in introspective conversation with the excellent BBC Symphony strings in Lachrymae and is also behind the very fine self-portrait of the teenage composer in Two Portraits (albeit uncredited). The Sinfonietta proves more interesting in its constant evolution than memorable in its substance, but it’s an original work from the fledgling genius. David Nice