The repertoire on this CD is written across a period of more than forty-five years, from the year Britten entered the Royal College of Music at the age of sixteen, to the very last year of his life. The works are performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and they are conducted by Edward Gardner, whose Britten release in March 2011 (CHAN 10658) was made Disc of the Month in the April issue of BBC Music.
They are joined by two extraordinary soloists. Sarah Connolly CBE is one of the foremost British mezzo-sopranos and a fellow of the Royal College of Music. She has been nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award, a TMA Award, and two Grammy awards – and won Edison, Gramophone, and South Bank awards. The violist Maxim Rysanov is one of the up-and-coming stars on today’s classical music scene. In the words of Gramophone: ‘It is rare for a musician featured as our One to Watch, already to be on his second Editor’s Choice…, but such is the pace of viola-player Maxim Rysanov’s rise that it’s difficult to keep up.’
The earliest of the works recorded here is Britten’s Two Portraits for strings. Written around the time Britten joined the Royal College of Music, this work remained unpublished during his lifetime. It was published only posthumously, in 1997. The first ‘portrait’ is an exuberant character-study of a childhood friend. The second, by contrast, is a characteristically introspective self-portrait, with the plaintive voice of the viola (the string instrument that Britten himself played) taking the lead. The soloist in the Two Portraits and Lachrymae is Maxim Rysanov.
The cantata Phaedra, Op. 93 is one of the very last works written by the composer before his death in 1976. Britten modelled the work on the Italian baroque cantatas of Handel, but it is also strongly influenced by Purcell, especially in the quality of the word setting. Phaedra is based on Robert Lowell’s acclaimed verse translation of Racine’s classical tragedy Phèdre, in which Phaedra, who is suffering from unrequited love for Hippolytus, the son of her husband by his former wife, causes his death, before, devastated by remorse, she takes her own life. Originally written for the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, the tragic part of Phaedra is here sung by Sarah Connolly (also featured in A Charm of Lullabies). This is an extremely taut and economical work, very intense, and emotionally charged.