Britten: Owen Wingrave

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Owen Wingrave
PERFORMER: Peter Coleman-Wright, Alan Opie, James Gilchrist, Elizabeth Connell, Janice Watson, Sarah Fox, Pamela Helen Stephen, Robin Leggate; Tiffin Boys’ Choir; City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox


Britten at his consistent greatest it may not be, but he set James’s haunting tale of pacifism and implacable ancestral ghosts with a spare intensity worthy of late Shostakovich; and besides, the demands on the ensemble, on a par with Albert Herring, bring out the best of British, or British-based, singers every time (and that includes the recent DVD). Hickox’s excellent cast boasts some supreme exponents, though Peter Coleman-Wright as the peaceably heroic Owen and Pamela Helen Stephen as his mixed-up, wilful girlfriend Kate have a very hard act to follow in Britten’s own Ben Luxon and Dame Janet Baker (Decca). Those two certainly had the edge on tone-colour and temperament, especially in the climactic monologue and I-dare-you-to-sleep-in-the-haunted-room duet, though Coleman-Wright and Stephen inflect well, like everyone else on this admirable recording. Alan Opie and Janice Watson, following in the formidable footsteps of John Shirley-Quirk and Heather Harper, fully inhabit the roles of the decent Coyles, while Elizabeth Connell’s frightful militaristic aunt and Sarah Fox’s craven Mrs Julian are clearer and more focused than Britten’s ladies. Robin Leggate sounds like Pears and reminds us there are alternatives in Britten to the relatively invertebrate Bostridge. Hickox draws haunting colours and chordings from his City of London Sinfonia, and the recording is flawlessly presented. So too, though, was Britten’s for Decca, and the composer-conductor is slightly more incisive. Still, this is a fine achievement, and reminds one of the memorable ideas – and I don’t necessarily mean tunes – pouring out of England’s greatest 20th-century composer, ideas in which Birtwistle’s recent Minotaur, for all its music-theatre pace and atmosphere, proved so sorely lacking. David Nice