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Hyperion Records

LSO0749 - Britten: The Turn of the Screw
Recording details: April 2013
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: December 2013
Total duration: 110 minutes 32 seconds

'Recorded only days after the death of Colin Davis, this vibrant, spine-tingling take on Britten’s Henry James opera owes its success to the late conductor’s replacement, Opera North’s music director' (The Sunday Times)

'Recorded at the Barbican last year, conductor Richard Farnes, his 17 musicians and an exceptional cast never let the tension lag throughout the two hours' (Limelight, Australia)

'Playing and direction are exemplary, making this a fine version with which to delve into the subtleties and internal correspondences of this astonishing score … well done, LSO!' (Classical Ear)

'There has been such an outpouring of Britten recordings during the centennial year that no one could keep up with everything, but when the dust settles it would be unsurprising if this one turned out to be one of the highlights' (Opera News)

'Filling in for concerts to have been conducted by the late Colin Davis, Farnes directs a taut, crisply-detailed account of Britten’s masterpiece. His cast is perfect: Kennedy a slyly seductive Quint; Matthews spot on in conveying the Governess’s growing horror and resolve; as telling a Flora and Miles as any on disc. Excellent Barbican sound' (Classical Music)

'This LSO Live SACD has quite excellent sound and features both a strong cast and fine orchestral playing' (

The Turn of the Screw

Released in celebration of the Britten anniversary year, Richard Farnes, the Music Director of Opera North who led their critically acclaimed production of The Turn of the Screw in 2010, conducts an all-English cast in Britten’s most ingeniously crafted opera, including Andrew Kennedy, Sally Matthews, and 11-year old Michael Clayton-Jolly in the role of Miles. Originally scheduled to be conducted by Sir Colin Davis, Richard Farnes was the natural replacement, himself having been mentored by the late conductor.

In 1932, the 18-year-old Britten heard on the radio ‘a wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie and scary play The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.’ Britten’s version of the ghost story, premiered in 1954, is a chamber opera in a prologue and two acts. The opera tells the story of a Governess and a housekeeper Mrs Grose who vow to protect two children, Miles and Flora from the strange happenings that occur in the grounds of their English country house.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
On 1 June 1932, the 18-year-old Benjamin Britten sat listening to the radio. He noted in his diary that he heard ‘Saint-Saëns Carnval des Animaux [sic]—and a wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie and scary play The Turn of the Screw by Henry James’. Britten may not have been able to predict the future hold that James’ 1898 ghost story would have on him, but E J King Bull’s dramatisation clearly left a mark.

In the early 1950s, now an established composer with commissions pouring in, Britten began to think about James’ novella once more. Myfanwy Piper, the wife of the artist and designer John Piper, mentioned the operatic potential of the story to the composer’s partner Peter Pears. Britten was intrigued, but work on Billy Budd (1951) and the coronation opera commission Gloriana (1953) were understandably dominating his thoughts.

Once those projects had been dispatched—the first successfully, the second meeting with a somewhat muted response—Britten was free to focus on The Turn of the Screw. Having promised but failed to deliver the opera for an original premiere at the Venice Biennale in 1953, the pressure was on. Thankfully, collaborating with Myfanwy Piper provided an immediate fit.

Piper was sadly unable to decamp to Aldeburgh to work directly with Britten due to her family commitments—Britten once remarked that ‘I don’t understand really how you managed to fit it all in’—yet the pair collaborated well at a distance, ironing out any hitches via letters and phone calls. They formed a mutually respectful partnership and worked quickly towards the postponed first performance on 14 September 1954.

James’ story about the loss of innocence and Piper’s often psychosexual poetic response suited Britten perfectly. The ghost story structure prompted his ingenious theme and variation structure, described by a rising and falling tonal scheme (not unlike a turning screw). But the power of the opera is based not only on the inventiveness of its construction but also its nascent theatricality. In Quint and Miles, Flora and Miss Jessel, Britten and Piper created some of the most beguiling yet chilling characters in all opera.

Henry James’ 1898 ghost story The Turn of the Screw is as perplexing as it is powerful. Are the experiences of the children the result of the evil actions of two former estate staff or are they the hysterical fantasies of an addled governess?

It was no doubt this curious subtlety that first attracted Britten to the text when he heard a radio play on the BBC in 1932. Describing it as a ‘wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie and scary’ story, the composer was clearly intrigued by what he had heard. Working with writer Myfanwy Piper on an operatic adaptation 22 years later, Britten was able to blur James’ boundaries between the real and the imagined yet further through musical means. So when the Governess asks ‘what have we done between us?’ at the end of the opera, the audience is powerless to answer.

Britten first came to know Myfanwy Piper through her husband the artist John Piper, whom she married in 1935. The Pipers’ home was a regular haunt for Britten and his friends during the 1930s. The composer regularly consulted Myfanwy on literary matters, including the librettos for The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and Albert Herring (1947). Following the relative failure of Gloriana (1953), Britten was keen to return to smaller scale works. Piper and Britten’s first project (begun as Gloriana was coming to the stage) soon evolved into another vehicle for Britten’s English Opera Group. Piper, no doubt knowing of Britten’s often difficult temperament, struck an immediate easy balance that neither Eric Crozier nor Montagu Slater had been able to manage. Piper worked tirelessly adapting the first person ghost story into a working libretto in which persons real, imagined or ghostly have equally rewarding tales. Piper achieved this with remarkable concision, adjusting the text following letters and phone calls, thus allowing Britten free rein.

The implicit dichotomy between actual and illusory states worked well for Britten. He conjures the world of Bly with great dynamism and colour. The Governess’ ride to the house is underpinned with a jolting rhythm, echoing the carriage wheels as they bump along the road. Miles’ Mozartian piano lesson and his endless vocabulary lists in his Latin lesson are eloquent and precise. The score is vivid and kinetic, never relenting, drawing us on, even in seemingly most mundane moments. But in the repetition of these motifs, both rhythmic and melodic (not least the manic nursery rhymes), Britten reveals something unsettling about the children.

The Latin nouns that Miles recites—‘amnis, axis, caulis, collis, clunis, crinis, fascis, follis …’—have been found to have alternative meanings as slang for the sexual organs. This may seem mere schoolboy humour, but it indicates that all is not quite what it seems. And as in Peter Grimes (taking its lead in turn from Berg’s Wozzeck), Britten uses the orchestral interlude to comment on the drama as it unfolds. In these wordless moments the composer provides a bridge between reality and imagination. It is therefore not just the Governess who is unable to distinguish between these two worlds; by enveloping the audience within the interludes, we are aligned with her confusion.

That puzzlement is pushed even further with the arrival of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Quint’s first appearance is perfectly timed. The third variation—a lush pastoral interlude indicating a warm summer’s evening (with broad held chords in the strings and ululating bird-like woodwind)—shows the Governess walking easily through the grounds. But the eerie glitter of the harp, which sounds when the children are mentioned, immediately undercuts the serenity of the picture. Unhearing, the Governess evokes her employer and how proud he would be of her care for the children. It is at that moment that Quint (not yet named) can be seen on a nearby tower (a scheme which is repeated later at the Lake with Miss Jessel). The sound world shifts instantly, dominated by the celesta’s metallic shimmer and a more chromatic harmonic palate. The woodwind that had previously echoed birdsong now snags against the Governess’ questions. Without singing a word, Quint has disturbed her state of mind and that of the work as a whole.

Quint and Miss Jessel’s ‘voice’ in the opera is a beguiling but treacherous cocktail of magic and sexual temptation. The celesta returns to accompany Quint in the children’s bedroom. Recalling the gentle tinkle of a music box, this exquisite instrument first appeared at the end of the 19th century. Its piquant chimes cut through orchestral textures and, in the music of Richard Strauss and his contemporaries (Schreker, Zemlinsky or Korngold), it underpins particularly erotic moments, such as Salome kissing the severed head of John the Baptist in Strauss’ 1903 opera. Britten uses the instrument in a number of his scores, relying on it to characterise Quint in The Turn of the Screw and later in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For Britten the instrument was sometimes used to recall the sound of the Balinese Gamelan, which the Canadian composer Colin McPhee had introduced to him during his time in America during the War. This new timbre represented a kind of ‘danger’, appearing in Britten’s work as early as Paul Bunyan (1941). Quint and his exotic sounds may enchant, but they also draw us into an unsafe world. To Miles, the ubiquitous bad schoolboy, Quint represents an escape from conformity and the Governess’ increasingly stifling hold. Eventually, Miles mirrors Quint’s music and the ever-revolving sound of ‘Malo’ (Bad) echoes through the score. Miles says ‘You see, I am bad’, but we can also hear it.

This ensnaring is all planned meticulously in the score. Britten structures the opera around a theme and variation form. We hear the two-part theme immediately after the Prologue. It sounds again later as the ghosts quote from Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’, the repetitive mantra, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’. The recurrence of this theme allows us to latch on to the ghosts and identify their presence—musical and dramatic—in the opera. It is their musical aura, more than anything else, that indicates their existence. The history and sounds of Bly—the ‘curious story’ to which the Prologue refers—have been changed irrevocably by them. And as each interlude develops that initial theme, we realise that the Ghosts’ destruction of the children is a musical and dramatic inevitability.

The Governess may appear as bewildered as we are by this process, but in her final search for truth—‘What have we done between us?’—she indicates her complicity (and perhaps ours too). By allowing ourselves to be drawn into the drama, do we become voyeurs of its tragedy? The opera’s great achievement is that we are never entirely certain about the actuality of this world. Having initially set up two opposing states—that of Bly and the ghosts—Britten and Piper combine one and the other. And, as the Governess repeats the ‘Malo’ theme in the final bars, we wonder whether we can even trust her as a reliable narrator.

Prologue: A narrator tells a curious story about a governess who looks after two children. She has agreed to do everything for them, providing she never contacts their guardian.

Act I: The Governess travels to Bly, somewhat nervous about her imminent task. Miles and Flora are excited about her arrival and dance around the housekeeper Mrs Grose. When the Governess arrives, the children lead her off on a trip around the park. Soon, a letter arrives reporting that Miles has been expelled from school; Mrs Grose is shocked by the news. Hearing the children singing nursery rhymes, the Governess decides to ignore the letter.

In the grounds, one summer evening, the Governess sees a strange man, who appears by the house again the following day. When she describes to Mrs Grose whom she has seen, the housekeeper realises that Peter Quint, the master’s distrustful old valet, has returned. He used to spend a lot of time with Miles and ‘had his will’ with Miss Jessel, the former governess. Quint died, however, having fallen on an icy road. Mrs Grose and the Governess vow to protect the children.

Miles recites his Latin, but when the Governess asks what else he has learned, the boy begins to sing a strange song. No less peculiar is the lullaby Flora sings to her doll by the lake. Seeing Miss Jessel on the other side of the water, the Governess realises that the children are becoming lost to her. At night, Quint and Miss Jessel lure Miles and Flora into the garden.

Act II: Quint and Miss Jessel reproach each other before deciding to find companions whose innocence they can destroy. The Governess is unsure how to react to unfolding events. In the churchyard Flora and Miles sing a mock hymn of praise. They enchant Mrs Grose, but the Governess is certain the children are communicating with ‘the others’. Having decided not to contact the children’s guardian, the sight of Miss Jessel in the schoolroom changes the Governess’ mind. She tells Miles that she has written a letter, which Quint encourages Miles to steal.

In the schoolroom Miles impresses the Governess and Mrs Grose with his piano playing. Flora slips out. Realising where she has gone, the women chase after her. Flora is by the lake again. The Governess spots Miss Jessel in the distance, but neither Mrs Grose nor, more surprisingly, Flora claims to be able to see her. Shocked by the Governess’ delusory state, Mrs Grose removes Flora from the house, leaving Miles and the Governess alone. Unable or unwilling to answer her questions, Miles becomes increasingly agitated. Finally he rejects Quint’s calls and falls lifelessly in the Governess’ arms.

Gavin Plumley © 2013

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