Britten: Curlew River

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Koch Schwann
WORKS: Curlew River
PERFORMER: Matthew Hargreaves, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Mark Evans, Mark Milhofer; Guildhall Chamber Ensemble/ David Angus
CATALOGUE NO: 3-1397-2 DDD
No doubt Collins Classics’ ongoing Britten Edition, in its plan to prove that most of Britten’s music is powerful and individual enough to outlive its original composer-sanctioned performers, will get round to all three church parables in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, those craving a one-off alternative to Britten’s own authoritative and moving account of the first, and best of them, Curlew River, for Decca, will find this record of a single live performance, taped in St Giles Cripplegate, during the LSO’s Festival of Britten in 1993, an enticing if not quite ideal proposition.

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David Angus conducts a leisurely reading: though not aspiring to the heavenly length of a real Japanese Noh play, he manages to add nearly ten minutes to Britten’s own timing. It’s the result not so much of any impossibly drawn-out tempi per se, or of a desire to highlight the Guildhall Chamber Ensemble’s delight and skill in negotiating Britten’s felicitous instrumental writing, as of the need to allow the sounds to disappear into the church’s generous acoustic, a necessary imposition, I suppose, given the concerns of the recording engineers faced with an all-or-nothing assignment.

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This reservation apart, the performance as a whole is a fine, committed one, vocally less characterful than Britten’s team, but not inappropriately so given the work’s relative austerity. The young, fresh-voiced Guildhall School-trained soloists make strong contributions – the baritones imposing in presence but interchangeable in tone quality, the tenor Madwoman mercifully free of that archness marring Peter Pears’s account, allowing this strange and beautiful piece to work again its special, haunting magic. Antony Bye