Britten: Albert Herring

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Nimbus
ALBUM TITLE: Britten
WORKS: Albert Herring
PERFORMER: Joan Cross, Gladys Parr, Margaret Ritchie, Otakar Kraus, Roy Ashton, Norman Lumsden, Denis Dowling, Peter Pears, Nancy Evans, Catherine Lawson; English Opera Group/Benjamin Britten
CATALOGUE NO: NI 5824-6

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Postwar Scandinavian audiences were notably receptive to Britten, and in 1949 a new-fangled tape-recorder enthusiast preserved this English Opera Group visit to Copenhagen – in remarkable quality, too. There are two small gaps, left while changing tapes, and dodgy perspectives; Lady Billows almost disappears sometimes. But this Herring features almost entirely original cast members, excepting only Harry the schoolboy and the Vicar, that distinguished Wagnerian Ottakar Kraus. And it’s still highly listenable, and illuminating. The first thing one notices is the warmth of Britten’s conducting, and indeed the whole performance. In his excellent sleeve-notes Nigel Douglas invokes the Ealing comedies, and it’s much more like their cosier exempla than modern readings, looking to Maupassant’s sour original. Her Ladyship and the borough worthies come over as genial buffoons rather than repressive harpies; only Mrs Herring seems actively poisonous. There’s little class differentiation, let alone the East Anglian accents of Sir Peter Hall’s brilliant Glyndebourne video; everyone sounds rather genteel, even Albert and the young lovers. As in Decca’s 1964 recording, Britten seems to repress the sly sensuality he gave them. Not Pears, though; this is the voice Britten wrote Albert for – younger, stronger, darker and more credible than for Decca, possessing real anguish in his gaslight scena. The Danes audibly relish the humour, and so can we. This is a treasurable reminder that however we burden Herring with parables of sexual oppression, its creator evidently meant it to be first and foremost life-affirming and funny. Michael Scott Rohan