Discs: Tightening the Screw

BRITTEN: The Turn of the Screw: Felicity Lott, Philip Langridge, Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble / Steuart Bedford (Collins 70302: two CDs)

SEXUAL repression, child abuse . . . suffice it to say, Britten's perfectly formed little masterpiece has acquired a few additional layers of subtext over the years. Is the Governess victim of a powerful infatuation with her employer? Are he and Peter Quint essentially one and the same? What really happened between Quint and the boy Miles?

For sure, Henry James's ghost story is about a good deal more than demonic possession - good versus evil. But the drama is in the psychology, and much of that is left unspoken. From the moment Britten's tiny orchestra proliferates from the solo piano of the Prologue, it's all in the mind. Dream factory time. The resourcefulness of the scoring remains one of Britten's finest achievements. Clarity and ambiguity miraculously co-exist. You could take away the voices and still keep the narrative alive.

Steuart Bedford's Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble do just that with riveting incisiveness and theatricality. When Miles throws down his challenge to the Governess in the churchyard scene, the intensity of the orchestral release makes for a true apotheosis, the point on which the entire drama, the screw, will turn.

No flaws in the casting, either. Felicity Lott is an affecting Governess, tempering formality with a womanly allure. And she is terrifically commanding in the frustration and anguish of her later scenes.

But the heart of darkness beats in Quint's seductive vocal melismas, and Philip Langridge has long since put to rest the ghost of Peter Pears. Sam Pay's Miles succumbs touchingly. Will we ever really know the full significance of his terrible cry 'Peter Quint, you devil'?

ES

I'VE always felt that Britten as interpreter of his own music tended to pull his punches - at least on record. Well, self-revelation on paper is one thing; as a confessional, the studio leaves a lot to be desired. While the old mono Britten recording is full of haunting things, this is the version that chills, from the first, ominous presentation of the 'Screw' theme to the anguished fragmentation of the little 'Malo' tune at the end.

Steuart Bedford handles the pacing very surely. However spare the writing, the tension never ebbs, and there's some beautiful solo playing. Britten's claim that writing The Turn of the Screw was 'like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube that's nearly finished' is harder than ever to believe. Operas are almost expected to have musical lacunae - not this one.

It isn't all gains, I admit. Sam Pay, as the ambiguous 'innocent' Miles, is a little more reticent, less secure than David Hemmings, the role's creator on record and in the theatre, though his mounting anxiety in the final, fatal show-down is convincing enough.

But Felicity Lott is a superb Governess, heroic yet fragile, at once striving to uncover the truth and fighting against the realisation she dreads. Philip Langridge's Quint is on the same high level: insidiously charming, but increasingly revealing his craving for life and . . .

And those who see the other ghost, Miss Jessel, as a dramatic failure may revise their opinions after hearing Nadine Secunde: the role remains secondary, but its contribution to the nightmare atmosphere is enhanced. Even the ghosts' Colloquy, with its carefully underlined Yeats quotations, compels - not a trace of archness. If you thought the composer's recording was definitive (a dubious concept anyway), try this and think again.

SJ

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