Britten: Paul Bunyan

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Paul Bunyan
PERFORMER: Peter Coleman-Wright, Kenneth Cranham, Kurt Streit, Susan Gritton; Royal Opera House Chorus & Orchestra/Richard Hickox
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9781(2)
Any new recording of Britten’s exhilarating Paul Bunyan is welcome: the work’s witty musical and literary vignettes cry out for creative interpretation. Chandos’s new recording from the impressive Royal Opera revival in spring 1999 is only the second in the catalogue. In some ways, Richard Hickox and company have succeeded in bringing the young Britten home: this recording is not only very apparently live – we’re taken right into the theatre complete with thundering footfall, ragged ensemble and some indistinct patches – but it is highly operatic in style. A more familiar Britten heaves into view. The chorus isn’t a million miles away from that in Grimes, though here benign; the extraordinary heterophony as the moon turns blue was a device that would appear again in The Prince of the Pagodas and the Church Parables, to name but two.

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However, if you are looking for a truly ‘American’ Paul Bunyan, Philip Brunelle’s Plymouth Music Series version of 1988 (Virgin) is the one. His richly resonant James Lawless plays Paul Bunyan as Hollywood superhero, rather than Kenneth Cranham’s kindly old janitor. And Pop Wagner’s ballad interludes, recorded with his guitar up close, really sound like popular folk ballads, complete with southern drawl, while on the Chandos version the guitar blends into the violins. Moreover, Peter Coleman-Wright’s studied diction would sound out of place on the open prairie. Balance is expertly managed in Brunelle’s recording, which fairly zips along, with sharp rhythms, tight, bright ensemble and a consistency of accent.

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Where the Zambello/Hickox production comes alive is in the depth of emotion shown in the set pieces of Kurt Streit’s Inkslinger and Susan Gritton’s Tiny. There is also the profound colour of the chorus at its best, particularly in the moving Prologue, with its urgent dialogue followed by climactic ‘Once in a while, the moon turns blue’. Here Hickox’s more grandly spacious reading really pays off. Helen Wallace