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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDH55225
Recording details: November 1995
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Oliver Rivers
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: May 1996
Total duration: 15 minutes 51 seconds

'A chronologically wide-ranging Britten programme performed with unerring sensitivity and much quiet insight. With first-rate sound and balance throughout, this is an excellent anthology' (Gramophone)

'A fascinating collection of neglected Britten, excellent playing from the Nash Ensemble and first-rate recording' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'The Nash Ensemble performances are brilliant and brilliantly recorded. There is a clarity and urgency to the performances that reveals much of the inner workings of Britten's music' (American Record Guide)

'Satisfaction is guaranteed' (Classic FM Magazine)

'This consistently enjoyable and stimulating disc' (Classic CD)

'A fascinating disc in which the straight line from early to late Britten is highly visible' (Fanfare, USA)

Phaedra, Op 93
summer 1975
author of text
translator of text

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Phaedra, Britten’s cantata for solo voice and small orchestra, was written in the summer of 1975 as a tribute to Janet Baker, who had established herself as a consummate Britten interpreter with the English Opera Group and who was a regular and much-loved participant at Aldeburgh Festivals. It was following a highly successful performance of Berlioz’s Nuits d’été by Dame Janet at the 1975 Festival that Britten told her of his intention to write a piece for her. The consequences of his heart surgery two years earlier meant that Britten found the process of composing physically difficult and for a time psychologically traumatic. A full-scale stage work was absolutely out of the question; what Britten did, instead, was to distil a lifetime’s operatic expertise into a fifteen-minute solo cantata, modelled after the Italian cantatas of Handel.

Taking his cue from Handel, Britten restricted the orchestra to strings; but he added percussion, and incorporated a ‘continuo’ of solo cello and harpsichord. The structure of the work was also articulated in an eighteenth-century manner as a sequence of recitatives and arias. The text is drawn from Robert Lowell’s verse translation of Racine’s Phèdre. Britten had met Lowell in New York in 1969, and the American poet travelled to Snape to attend the triumphant first performance of Phaedra in June 1976 at the Aldeburgh Festival of that year, the last that Britten was to attend.

Like so many of Britten’s operatic characters, Phaedra may be seen as an outcast at odds with the society in which she finds herself. The Apollonian A major of the work’s opening (to be compared with Death in Venice, 1973), ‘In May, in brilliant Athens’, marks from the outset the restrained clarity of the cantata’s idiom. As ‘Medea’s poison’ courses through Phaedra’s veins, so Britten’s orchestral texture grows in dynamics and textural richness (divided strings throughout), gradually rising – like the poison in her body – from lower to upper strings. It is only by way of her death, by this annihilating ascension, that Phaedra finally achieves the ‘purity’ signified by a Brittenesque C major that has eluded her in life.

from notes by Philip Reed © 1996

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