This solid reissue, one of many that Naxos has salvaged from Collins Classics, presents three of Benjamin Britten's orchestral song cycles: the well-known Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, the Nocturne, and the dramatic cantata Phaedra, composed in 1975, not long before the composer's death. All three are conducted by the veteran Steuart Bedford, whose feel for Britten's music is unsurpassed, and sung with great insight by Philip Langridge and Ann Murray.
Langridge's Serenade is penetrating, and in most ways it surpasses the now aged recording that Peter Pears made with the composer conducting: there is more expressive variety, and Britten's musical gestures are brought into stronger relief than they were with Pears' occasionally lackadaisical delivery. The frenzied runs on "excellently bright" that close Ben Jonson's "Hymn" are both clearer and more motivated in Langridge's hands, just as slower songs like "Elegy" are more sustained, and therefore more serious. The only important flaw is Langridge's audible struggles with the unforgivingly high repeated phrases of "Dirge," which leave him sounding ragged and pushed beyond his limits. Frank Lloyd's virtuosic horn playing is an instant reminder that the serenade was composed as much for the great horn player Dennis Brain as it was for Peter Pears. Lloyd manages the deliberate mis-tunings, the extremes of range and volume, and the evocative role assigned to the instrument with a flair and technical precision that belies its difficulty, and he deserves a lot of credit for the success of the performance overall.
Although written 15 years later, the Nocturne pairs nicely with the Serenade and is often viewed as a companion piece. The musical language is thornier, more complicated, and more motivically integrated than that of the Serenade, but as done here by Langridge and Bedford it is similarly evocative and poetically astute. Langridge is especially good at walking the line between speech inflection and purely musical gesture that can make Britten's music sound awkward in the wrong hands. The instrumental soloists from the Northern Sinfonia, a different instrument for each song, are universally excellent.
Ann Murray's performance of Phaedra, a dramatic cantata originally composed for Janet Baker, rounds out the program. It is the most challenging work on the program, and Naxos has dealt it a serious blow by omitting (apparently by accident?) the printed text from the booklet, which does include texts for both the Serenade and the Nocturne. Murray's diction is excellent, and her dramatic instincts are true, but the higher tessitura of the female voice and the often sustained syllables make understanding the words a prohibitive challenge. It's a shame when a lapse in packaging can undercut such an otherwise excellent performance -- one that captures Murray in very good form, too.