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Cat. No. CHAN 10280(2) Price: £21 No. of discs: 2
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CHAN 10280 - Britten: Death in Venice
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Available From: 07 February 2005
‘It’s either the best or the worst music I’ve ever written’, wrote Benjamin Britten in a letter shortly after completing the first draft in December 1972 of what would prove to be his last opera. The work, which took a little over two and a half years to write, and came at serious personal cost: ‘I wanted passionately to finish the piece before anything happened’, he said, postponing vital heart surgery. The eventual operation, thus delayed, was not wholly successful, and considerably shortened the composer’s life.

The opera is based on Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig, published in 1912. Britten had known about the novella for some time (he had a reputation for gestating projects over many decades) but the themes could hardly have been more topical for the late twentieth-century, a time when traditional attitudes towards homosexuality were becoming increasingly under scrutiny. Mann once wrote about the subject of his novella:

What I originally wanted to deal with was not anything homoerotic at all. It was the story – seen grotesquely – of the aged Goethe and that little girl in Marienbad whom he was absolutely determined to marry. Passion as confusion and as a stripping of dignity was really the subject of my tale.

Mann’s story concerns Aschenbach, a famous writer suffering from writer’s block, who falls passionately in love with a beautiful young Polish boy during a holiday in Venice. Britten’s opera – although it certainly portrays Aschenbach’s passion moving through stages of ‘confusion’ and ‘the stripping of dignity’ – is more about the right of the individual to express himself, both in art and in love without fear of social and legal censure. The novella takes the form of a stream of consciousness monologue and the librettist, Myfanwy Piper, gave shape to the work by turning the musings of Aschenbach into elements of a kind of psychological thriller.
Reviews

"...flaws are hard to find anywhere in the production. Philip Langridge makes the lengthy central roles a riveting experience..." "his [Alan Opie] exceptional acting skills serve him well in differentiating his seven characters. Michael Chance, who still has one of the loveliest countertenor sounds to be heard, is well cast as the voice of Apollo..." "Richard Hickox shows his expertise in the precise imagining of the nuance and dramatic point of each musical gesture, as well as a compelling overall dramatic surge right up to the breathtaking resolution on the very last note. Each detail of balance and articulation means something in this opera, and each is brilliantly realised here."
Jon Alan Conrad
 

operanews.com

Conductor Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia last night gave an important, overwhelmingly powerful reading of Benjamin Brittens final opera… Philip Langridge… proved a subtler, more deeply involved and flexible interpreter than Peter Peers… on this evidence theres still no finer singer-actor in the world.
London Evening Standard

Although most of Britten’s major operas are established on the international circuit, ‘Death in Venice’ has yet to claim its rightful place. Hopefully this new recording in Richard Hickox’s Britten series…will help advance its cause. The performance is beautifully played and recorded, and in its all-important central role reunites Richard Hickox with Philip Langridge, so compelling in their earlier set of ‘Peter Grimes’.
Gramophone (Editor’s Choice)

The Chandos, recorded last summer [2004] in Blackheath Concert Halls, is certainly not lacking in depth. But it also has an incisive clarity matching Richard Hickox’s generally more urgent approach to expression and tempo, and the more anguished Aschenbachg of Philip Langridge… With the BBC Singers contributing many a vivid bit part and the City of London Sinfonia often outplaying the English Chamber Orchestra, this new version bids fair to become as irreplaceable as the old.
BBC Music Magazine ‘Opera Choice’

I doubt whether I shall ever hear Aschenbach sung with more telling, truthful or touching insight.
The Times

Langridge is astonishing: his voice sounds positively youthful (which Pears didn’t in 1974) and his diction is as immaculate as that of the role’s creator. He identifies movingly with the character of the ageing author whose flagging inspiration and sensory passions are, momentarily, revived by an encounter with a beautiful Polish youth. Alan Opie brings more variety to the multiple characters of Aschenbach’s nemesis that did John Shirley-Quirk in the Decca recording. This is one of Hickox’s finest achievements on disc, and the recorded sound is spectacular.
Sunday Times

The other dramatic element in the opera is the choral dances, and that is where Hickox’s account really comes into its own: he makes more sense of the sometimes four-square choral writing and the gamelan-inspired orchestral textures than any other performance I’ve heard. Though Pear’s version preserves its special place, this is now the one to hear.
The Guardian

In this recording, Britten’s final opera comes across as a dark drama of the soul rather than the senses, full of inner voices, doubts and unfulfilled desires. Philip Langridge sings Aschenbach with poise and agonised humanity, while Alan Opie is extremely eloquent in the multiple baritone roles. With the City of London Sinfonia and BBC Singers, Hickox delivers a crystalline account that trumps the composer’s own.
FT Magazine

…what astonishing sonorities Hickox drew from his 41 players; never, perhaps, before have Brittens new-found chord-spacings come over so vividly… [Aschenbach] was a role written for, even partly by Pears, with all his unique idiosyncracies, and one never imagined him being surpassed. Yet in his immaculate diction, vast range of expression and tone, and above all, in the integrity of his portrayal, Langridge surely comes close.
The Independent

Here the emphasis is on tonal beauty. Beautiful singing, beautiful playing, even a slight lingering over – a slight stretching out – of particularly beautiful passages. Yet there is full measure of drama expressed though exquisite diction. Langridge is regarded as the leading interpreter of Britten’s tenor music, and here he certainly lets us hear why… The orchestra plays magnificently; they sound rich, warm, smooth as silk., Tempos are a bit slower than Britten’s, without the composer’s drive – gentler and just a shade under Britten’s fullness and emotional grandeur. Recorded sound is broad and clear.
American Record Guide

It is superbly recorded in Chandos’s most dazzlingly ‘present’ and realistic sound and quite wonderfully conducted by Hickox, the most convinced and convincing of the second-generation Britten conductors, who gets world-class playing from the City of London Sinfonia (and especially its virtuoso wind and tuned-percussion soloists)…. A triumph for Langridge, Opie, Hickox and Chandos, without a doubt, and one of the truly memorable records of the year, I think.
International Record Review

 

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