NOT A RIVAL BUT A COMPLEMENT TO THEN ORIGINAL
Klingsor Tristan | Suffolk | 10/07/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This new recording of Death in Venice is not so much a rival as complementary to the original Decca discs that have had the field to themselves for nearly 30 years now. The virtues of each are different and both more than merit a place on the shelves.
The huge main role of von Aschenbach was, of course, originally written as Britten's last big gift to his lifetime lover and inspiration, Peter Pears. The part fits him like the proverbial glove: it feeds off and shows off all his strengths as a singer whether in recitative or arioso passages. There's that distinctive, slightly croony sound near the top of his range, his ability to sing through and round the passagio with no hint of a join, the variations of colour he can bring to the middle of his voice and so on. Britten understood them all intimately and exploited them as never before in this opera. And, in the Decca recording, Pears delivers the goods immaculately and movingly. Maybe that's why it's taken so long for a second recording to appear.
But Philip Langridge doesn't attempt to imitate Pears. The voice is different and he makes the character very different, very much his own. It's a bit like the contrast between Pears and Vickers in Grimes. This von Aschenbach is much more of a man of action, involved in the world and responsive to it. His fight with writer's block is a real one. One suspects his observations of the hotel guests may just titillate a little creativity back into action. His discovery that 'Eros is in the Word' comes as something of a shock to him, the realisation that 'I love you' even more so, and the nightmare battle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian sides of his nature is truly frightening - for him and for us. His descent into the abyss, from the hysterical heights of the barber's shop through to the death on the beach, is really harrowing. Pears may sing more beautifully in the exquisite Phaedrus aria, but Langridge's subtle colouring of the voice and use of the text make it a heart-breaking experience. More than anyone else who has taken the role since Pears, Langridge offers a real alternative view.
Alan Opie, in the multiple baritone roles, is also complementary to the original, John Shirley-Quirk. Shirley-Quirk excels in those parts that demand more purely beautiful singing - the Traveller, the Gondolier, the Hotel Manager. Opie, on the other hand, is a master at the eccentrics, the camp and the outrageous - the Fop, the Barber and the Leader of the Strolling Players. Honours even, then. And so, too, between Michael Chance and James Bowman as the austere counter-tenor Apollo. Both sing his utterances with strength and beauty of tone.
Where Hickox really scores, though, is in the large part played by the chorus in this opera. He secures from the BBC Singers much tighter, more focused, better intonated choral singing that you'll find on the original Decca discs. The chorus here seem almost like another protagonist, so strong is their contribution. Even the 'Games of the Sun' in this performance don't seem to overstay their welcome as they do in most performances - indeed seem a candidate for extraction like the Choral Dances from Gloriana. And all the soloists taken from the BBC Singers for the multitude of smaller parts match or outshine their Decca rivals.
By now, Hickox's credentials as a Britten conductor are well proven. Bedford on Decca, of course, had the composer's own advice throughout his sessions (Britten was by then too ill to conduct himself). Hickox does not slavishly follow that lead: he has his own point of view. In a recording well up to Chandos's usual high standards, he secures gorgeous sounds and spring from the strings and woodwind in the 'View' motif, a magical rocking rhythm for the many barcarolles in the gondolas and real menace from the plague-ridden tuba which insinuates its presence more and more into the orchestral fabric of the opera.
All in all, a fascinating alternative view of Britten's last opera. And in great modern sound.
A Magnificent Recording of Britten's Jewel-like 'Death in Ve
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 08/24/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Benjamin Britten was a composer far beyond his time, a musician with a genius for orchestration, for intellectually stimulating and emotionally profound operas, and a man who is one of the few composers who has been able to write in the English language and find the music hidden there. His final opera is a tough one, a challenging story (Thomas Mann) translated into a dignified libretto by Myfanwy Piper, and a work that is primarily a monologue for tenor set against myriad scenes that change as quickly as the wind.
When Britten composed 'Death in Venice' he was in his last days of heart disease and though he never saw the opera composed for his lover, brilliant tenor Peter Pears, he did hear the premiere at Aldeburgh on his radio. The opera was first recorded in 1974 with the original cast (Peter Pears, John Shirley-Quirk, James Bowman with Steuart Bedford conducting) and for obvious reasons subsequent recordings feared comparison. Fortunately, now some thirty-two years later there is a splendid second recording, a recording so fine that for this Britten devotee is equal to the original - and in some ways better!
Philip Langridge inherits the near impossible role of Aschenbach, the aging, brilliant, detached 'Apollonian' who through a series of recitatives and encounters with a 'traveler' decides to go to Venice to revive his spirit. Included in this recording is the original first recitative of Aschenbach, a character-defining piece Britten out of uncertainty removed from the premiere (and the subsequent recording). It is now essential. Langridge has a fine tenor voice, perfect enunciation, and he creates an Aschenbach that conveys the tortured downfall of this famous character. He is amazing.
Britten and Piper created Aschenbach's nemeses (The Traveler, The Elderly Fop, The Old Gondolier, The Hotel Manager, The Hotel Barber, The Leader of the Players, and the Voice of Dionysus) to be sung by one baritone. And it is the choice of Alan Opie for this recording that adds great dimension to these changing roles. His is a voice rich and supple and completely able to portray different characters while simultaneously reminding us that they are interrelated and each part of Aschenbach's illusionary view of his world.
Add to this the superb countertenor voice of Michael Chance who intones Apollo in the major scene that contrasts the Apollonian vs Dionysian conflict that is central to Mann's story and the 'cast' of main characters is complete. The many small roles are all well sung. Richard Hickox conducts the City of London Sinfonia with insight into all of the complexities of the score and creates a lush and languid sound that is thoroughly appropriate for 'Serenissima' - Venice. The overall momentum of this opera is devastatingly beautiful, and for one who thought that the original Pears/Shirley-Quirk/Bedford recording could never be bettered, this recording is absolutely as fine and deserves to be proudly beside the other on the shelf. Highly Recommended on every level. Grady Harp, August 05
A voice teacher and early music fan
George Peabody | Planet Earth | 04/01/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"EXCELLENT PORTRAYAL OF THOMAS MANN'S NOVELLA
Britten said of this opera: "It's either the best or the worst music I've ever written." I don't know if it's the best but it is great music and certainly worth the listening time which is close to 3 hours.
Although this opera portrays the passion of Aschenbach (a writer experiencing writer's block) moving thru stages of 'confusion' and the 'stripping of dignity'; it is more about the right of the individual to express himself,both artistically and in love. It should be their right to do so without censure. It provided for Britten the opportunity to create a role of a mature man for his life companion and muse,Peter Pears.
I would strongly suggest that you first read the novella by Thomas Mann upon which this opera is based. Your listening pleasure and understanding will be doubled by doing so. Myfanwy Piper (the librettist) gave shape to the scenario by turning the musings of the central character (Aschenbach), into elements of a kind of psychological thriller. To focus the drama she assigned the various characters whom Aschenbach meets to one single performer. The resulting figure appearing in many guises is the bass-baritone :Alan Opie. Piper constructed 2 further roles from 2 intellectual ideas developed in Mann's text A struggle goes on in Aschenbach's mind essentially between 'purity' :the God Apollo (countertenor-Michael Chance) and 'impurity' :the God Dionysus (bsritone). There are many other voices heard thruout this opera; some mini-solos and some groups all of which are excellent and a pleasure to hear. Philip Langridge (Aschenbach tenor) is superb in his performance.
I feel that I could listen to the complete work without the singing and still follow the story because of the very descriptive orchestral writing.The solo performers are all excellent and I especially liked the voice of Apollo (Michael Chance); I was convinced that I was truly in the presence of a God.Thomas Mann would have definitely approved of Britten's work!"