This newcomer is in many ways the state-of-the-art, 21st century Britten...
John Armstrong 2002-11-20
'Iain Bostridge sings Benjamin Britten'.
That's enough to sell quite a few copies of this set without any further comment, and for some people I'm sure, without having heard a note of the music. But we cannot be so easily swayed, oh no: a little rigour is what we need when faced with this kind of temptation.
So, Bostridge is the people's choice for those tenor parts that demand a light-voiced, intelligent, intellectually well-prepared singer. Lieder, English songs, Bach Evangelists, that kind of thing...Britten operas, in those high-lying, usually emotionally tortured vehicles written for the unique instrument of Peter Pears. Thanks to tenors like Robert Tear, Philip Langridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson (and Jon Vickers in Peter Grimes), there's less need automatically to compare any newcomer in a Britten role to the original; to Pears-o-phobes (and there are many) the roles have been successfully rehabilitated. But to Pears-o-philes (ditto), he's still the man: despite the strange timbre, the precious pronunciation, his was the right voice, and the emotional power of some of his portrayals is unequalled.
The sheer malevolence of Pears's Peter Quint still springs undimmed from that 1955 mono recording - but Bostridge is more beguiling, more seductive. The beauty of his calls to Miles from the tower in the First Act convince you that he could cast a spell over the boy. In the final struggle with the Governess for possession of Miles, we feel Peter Quint's own fear, his vulnerability, and in his fading farewell the regret for his loss.
But it's the Governess that makes or breaks this Britten opera, and Joan Rodgers is outstanding, vacillating between her duty of care, her fear of the unknown, and her urge to save the children from the spirits that pursue them. Vocally Rodgers is dependably secure, often very beautiful, and always intelligent. You don't miss a syllable, and she delivers a life-sized Governess without ever veering into hysteria.
What about the children? As Miles, the young David Hemmings in the original recording is remarkable, reconciling childish innocence with wicked knowledge. For this production Julian Leang was excellent onstage but its harder for him to bring off on record, without his acting skills on show. Even so, it's a moving portrayal that echoes Bostridge's Quint: less pure evil, more amoral compulsion and confusion...as Flora, Caroline Wise is so much better than the adult sopranos sometimes used in the role on record: you can't fake this childlike innocence, and the contrast when Flora turns on her Governess in the second act is really effective.
Jane Henschel's Mrs Grose and Vivian Tierney's Miss Jessel are beyond reproach, and last, never least, Daniel Harding, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and the recording. Top marks to the lot: well-paced, atmospheric, and detailed: you'll hear new wonders in this score without ever feeling that you've been pulled inappropriately into the pit - the action on stage remains fully in focus, and the various voices off are very well handled.
To tell the truth there isn't a dud recording of The Turn of the Screw, they all have claims for your attention. But this newcomer is in many ways the state-of-the-art, 21st century Britten...and I know that many people who went to the Royal Opera House performances that followed this recording are going to want it. This cast worked very well on stage together, and it shows on cd.
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3