In his lifetime, the composer Benjamin Britten was sometimes criticized for surrounding himself with a small group of musicians with whom he liked to work. (The best-known, of course, was his longtime companion and lover, tenor Peter Pears, who inspired some of the composer's best vocal and dramatic music.) And the composer -- as a recent biography by Humphrey Carpenter makes clear -- also would suddenly and without warning cut off friends who had worked with him for years.
But genius often has its own way of protecting and nurturing itself. The wisdom of Britten's way of working is evident. In the 20th century many great composers have had the opportunity to leave behind recordings of their own interpretations. But it is difficult to think of another composer -- not even the great pianist-conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff -- who so consistently beat the competition in performances of his own music. This has not kept Britten's music from entering the standard repertory -- his wonderful comic opera, "Albert Herring," will be performed by Peabody Opera Theatre later this week. But Britten's preeminence as an interpreter of his own music testifies not only to his greatness as a conductor, but also to the decisions he made in choosing the singers and musicians who worked with him.
That's demonstrated by a new recording of the composer's 1960 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on Virgin Classics by the conductor Richard Hickox, the City of London Sinfonia and a solid cast that includes the countertenor James Bowman (Oberon), Lillian Watson (Tytania), Norman Bailey (Theseus), Donald Maxwell (Bottom) and Jill Gomez (Helena). The recording demonstrates that the opera is a masterpiece. But it also makes clear that Hickox -- one of many Britons who have taken up the symphonic and operatic repertory after beginning as a choral conductor -- simply does not know how to move the music along. And that's not the only reason the recording is inferior to Britten's own 1966 recording on the London label. Along with Verdi's "Otello" and "Falstaff," Britten's "Dream" is perhaps the most successful operatic rendering of Shakespeare. And it has many demands that are unique to the way Britten worked with his librettists and with his singers.
No composer -- not even Richard Wagner or Claudio Monteverdi -- ever set words so carefully. The libretto of the "Dream," while drastically truncating Shakespeare's original, consists almost entirely of the dramatist's language. In his recording, Britten's singers -- whether Alfred Deller's Oberon or Owen Brannigan's Bottom -- show an understanding of Shakespearean meaning and language that makes it possible for the listener to enter into his world (and Britten's) in a way the new recording does not.
But great music -- as the pianist Artur Schnabel once remarked -- is better than it can be performed. And it can be performed in ways that the composer -- even one who was as great a performer as Britten was -- did not imagine. That is demonstrated by a new recording on the EMI label of Britten's first operatic masterpiece, "Peter Grimes." The performance is led by Bernard Haitnik, who conducts the chorus and orchestra of Britain's Royal Opera House, with a cast -- including Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Grimes), Felicity Lott (Ellen) and Thomas Allen (Balstrode) -- drawn from the most recent Covent Garden production.
The performance, while it does not replace the composer's own 1959 recording, is superior to it in some respects. Haitink is a great conductor, and he makes the music -- particularly the "Sea Interludes" -- sound even more startling and dramatic than Britten did. He also has singers who make it possible to forget the cast that Britten assembled. Johnson's characterization of Grimes does not glint with madness as Pears' does, but when it matters -- as it does in the great aria, "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" -- his voice commands a smoothness and majesty that Pears lacked. Felicity Lott's Ellen is superior to that of Claire Watson as is Thomas Allen's Captain Balstrode to that of James Pease. This is a recording that everyone who cares about Britten's music should hear.
LISTEN TO BRITTEN
You can hear excerpts from new recordings of Benjamin Britten's 1960 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on Virgin Classics and his first operatic masterpiece, "Peter Grimes," on the EMI label on Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service.
You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800, or from Anne Arundel County, (410) 268-7736. After the greeting, punch in 6106.
What: Peabody Opera Theatre performing Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring"
When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
Where: Peabody Conservatory of Music, Leakin Hall, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place
Admission: $16; $8 for seniors and students
Call: (410) 659-8124