Hyperion Records

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

'Britten: Phaedra & other works' (CDH55225)
Britten: Phaedra & other works
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDH55225  Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service  
Movement 1: Prologue 'In May, in brilliant Athens'
Track 1 on CDH55225 [1'23] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service
Movement 2: Recitative 'My lost and dazzled eyes'
Track 2 on CDH55225 [1'15] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service
Movement 3: Presto 'You monster!'
Track 3 on CDH55225 [4'04] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service
Movement 4: Recitative 'Oh Gods of wrath'
Track 4 on CDH55225 [2'52] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service
Movement 5: Adagio 'My time's too short'
Track 5 on CDH55225 [6'17] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service

Phaedra, Op 93
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

Track-specific metadata
Click track numbers opposite to select

Details for CDH55225 track 5
Adagio 'My time's too short'
Recording date
22 November 1995
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Oliver Rivers
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Britten: Phaedra & other works (CDA66845)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: May 1996
    Deletion date: November 2004
    Superseded by CDH55225
  2. Britten: Phaedra & other works (CDH55225)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: January 2006
    Deletion date: February 2014
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service
   English   Français   Deutsch