Best recordings of 2020 – Part 2

IN 2020, opera houses around the world had to close their doors for several months because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is currently difficult to know when theatres will be able to open again in France and most of Europe, with the notable exception of Russia, where performances have went on with a reduced gauge. In my second assessment of the album releases of 2020, I’ve chosen as my favorite operatic highlights of this year several recordings of 20th-century British operas.

The Dancing Master – Malcolm Arnold (1952)

This recording of The Dancing Master is one of the most exciting discoveries of 2020. This one-act comic opera composed by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) to a libretto by film director Joe Mendoza was intended for television, but it was rejected as too daring by both the BBC and Granada, and was consequently never performed on stage or recorded during Arnold’s lifetime. This beautiful album was carefully crafted by the very talented conductor John Andrews, who in recent years has recorded other rarities from the British lyric repertoire such as Thomas Arne’s The Judgement of Paris and several works by Arthur Sullivan, the BBC Concert Orchestra and a cast of wonderful British singers. It is a world premiere, and a great opportunity to (re)discover the work of an English composer little known in France.

Inspired by a play by William Wycherley, The Gentleman Dancing Master (1671), the Dancing Master‘s lively and rather crude libretto a love farce with characters typical of the English Restoration period: an heiress cloistered by a very protective guardian, an intriguing maid, and a handsome, unsavoury seducer. This « colourful » work, characterised by « Malcolm Arnold’s brilliant orchestration », to use the words of conductor John Andrews in the libretto of the disc, is splendidly performed both orchestrally and vocally speaking, which is a real challenge considering the technical difficulties of this opera : « The harmonic language is often very challenging, too: it has a fantastic cartoon-ish quality in places, but so much of it is actually bitonal. Time after the time the singer has to enter a tone or semitone away from the orchestra, or singing the one note that’s missed out of a six-note chord; fortunately we cast people who were completely on top of all that, but they get no credit for dashing this stuff off with elegance and charm, as if it’s a walk in the park! » (John Andrews’s interview to Katherine Cooper on the website of Presto Classical). This album is a real gem that will help you cheer up at the end of a bleak year!

Miss Julie – William Alwyn (1977)

Another rare operatic work from a composer who is little known or even unknown in France, William Alwyn (1905-1985), as Jean-Pierre Rousseau commented in his review of the disc : « Continental Europe has always considered the British musical sphere as a terra incognita! The average music lover would find it difficult to name more than ten British composers: Dowland, Purcell, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten and then? The opera lover would add Maxwell Davies, Tippett or closer to us George Benjamin, Thomas Adès… but William Alwyn? ». (Jean-Pierre Rousseau, « Le confinement de Miss Julie« , Forum Opera). This ignorance of British music in France is a great source of sorrow for me, and I hope that splendid recordings such as this one will open up French music lovers’ ears to the beauties of the British repertoire.

After a brilliant career as a composer of film music, Alwyn decided in the 1960s to concentrate exclusively on « non-commercial » musical projects, as well as writing, painting and drawing, as Andrew Palmer explains in the accompanying booklet. Alwyn, who had long been drawn to the world of the opera, finally had the time to devote himself to composing an opera. After a failed collaboration with Christopher Hassall on a libretto inspired by August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie (1888), Alwyn decided to write it himself, as he wanted to dispense « with all inessential detail, symbolism and moralising, and to retain only the dramatic Strindbergian substance of the play ». To this end he condensed « Strindberg’s text, replacing verbal symbolism with musical themes and motifs, and – more controversially – introducing a new character. Ulrik, the gamekeeper, acts as substitute for Strindberg’s chorus of villagers, whose presence in the opera Alwyn believed would appear contrived, even clumsy; he was also convinced that the absence of a chorus would heighten the claustrophobic, hot-house atmosphere in which the doomed relationship between the two main characters takes place. »Under the passionate direction of Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, the BBC Symphony Orchestra shines as does the vocal quartet, consisting of Anna Patalong, Benedict Nelson, Rosie Aldrige and Samuel Sakker. All these excellent musicians and singers give an intense and dramatic interpretation of this masterpiece of operatic art.

Peter Grimes – Benjamin Britten (1945)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) has been one of the few British composers of the 20th century to be performed regularly in French concert halls and opera houses, and Peter Grimes is one of his best-known operas. Unlike the two works presented previously, a rich discography already exists to discover Britten’s masterpiece, including the recording conducted by the composer himself and performed by his companion Peter Pears in the title role. So why listen to a new recording? Quite simply because this recently released album gives us the opportunity to listen to the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, one of the greatest contemporary performers of the title role, and his partnership with English conductor Edward Garner is remarkable, as critic Richard Morrison explained in The Times: « The burly Aussie tenor is now even more identified with this ill-fated protagonist than Peter Pears, the first Grimes. And everywhere Skelton has sung the part, whether at English National Opera, the Proms, the Edinburgh festival or now on this international tour of a concert staging mounted by the Bergen Philharmonic, the conductor has been Edward Gardner. Theirs is one of the great musical partnerships, and they continue to find compelling new depths in this tragic masterpiece. » Add to this the rich and luminous sound of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, of which Gardner has been Music Director since 2015, and a sparkling cast of singers, both soloists and choirs (the Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Royal Northern College of Music Chorus, Choir of Collegium Musicum Håkon, conducted by Matti Skrede), and you have the recipe for a magnificent performance of Peter Grimes.

In contrast to the operas previously presented, Britten’s opera was a resounding international success at its premiere and, as Philip Reed explains in the booklet that « Peter Grimes broke considerable new ground and encouraged other British composers to tackle opera composition themselves ». For his second opera, Britten decided to delve into his roots, and drew inspiration from a poem by George Crabbe (1754 -1832), a native of Suffolk like Britten himself. Britten transformed the « story of a violent fisherman living in Aldeburgh who killed the mosses he brought in from social workshops and then received visits from their ghosts » into a more ambiguous « drama of fate, » in which « after Don Giovanni, Otello or Wozzeck, the composer takes up the theme of the outcast, the cursed hero whose destruction is programmed in advance. Its setting: a crime in a small village in Suffolk, to which Britten’s iodized music, alternately impressionistic and symbolist, gives heart-rending accents of realism and truth. If the classical forms of opera (arias, duets, choruses) are respected, they are integrated into a fluid, continuous orchestral fabric, where moving harmonies describe the power of the marine element, a parable of the storms that are stirring under the skulls ». (Source: Opera Online)

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