Britten: The Turn of the Screw

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: The Turn of the Screw
PERFORMER: Helen Donath, Heather Harper, Robert Tear, Ava June, Lillian Watson, Michael Ginn, Philip Langridge; members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Colin Davis
CATALOGUE NO: 446 325-2 ADD Reissue
Britten’s own recordings of his operas set the standard against which subsequent accounts are bound to be compared, and they will always be hard acts to follow. Colin Davis waited until after the composer’s death before recording his towering account of Peter Grimes, and three years later, in 1981, followed it with this Turn of the Screw. As with his Grimes, it is the orchestral playing that makes it special. Davis extracts a sound from the 14 members of the ROH Orchestra far greater in depth and intensity than the number of musicians might suggest. But the apparent richness and sweeping breadth of sound do not detract from the detail; every nuance, every texture of this chilling but hauntingly beautiful score is revealed, and the effect is eerily exquisite.

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Unfortunately not all the soloists do justice to the playing. Helen Donath’s Governess sings well, her tone lustrous and legato fluid, but she scarcely communicates the horror and fear so crucial to her character. Confronted by Robert Tear and Heather Harper’s terrifying, vivid ghosts, Michael Ginn’s manipulative and subtly hysterical Miles or Lillian Watson’s mischievous if mature Flora, she seems oblivious to the surrounding drama. But the real problem is Philip Langridge’s colourless and uninvolving Prologue, which weakens the atmosphere of foreboding from the outset. He is far better in Steuart Bedford’s more recent recording on Collins (reviewed in May 1994).

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There is much to recommend here, but Britten’s directness and incisiveness make his the best set of the three available. Claire Wrathall