A new non-profit recording company has set up shop in Britain, Music Preserved, with the aim of reclaiming some important live performance recordings from the the 1950s (at least so far, it’s mostly from the 1950s). There are several significant recordings in the first batch of ten: the Amadeus Quartet playing Mozart and Britten string quartets; William Walton’s Cello Concerto and Façade, conducted by Paul Sacher with Joan Cross and Peter Pears as the reciters; and, most significantly, a recording of the first performance at the Covent Garden Opera House of Benjamin Britten’s coronation opera Gloriana, with Joan Cross as Queen Elizabeth and Peter Pears as the Earl of Essex. John Pritchard was the conductor. The performance has historically had the reputation of being one of opera’s greatest fiascos; however, in the live recording (which has been cleaned up, but still is obviously a “vintage” recording), the applause is more than polite, and the performance is electric. There are so few recordings of Joan Cross (she was the original Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes in 1945) that this is a recording to be treasured. After later redemption through recordings by Sarah Walker, Josephine Barstow (not to mention the DVD film of Gloriana starring Barstow, but which leaves out significant portions of the opera) and a live performance by Christine Brewer, all of which were effective in there own ways, it is fascinating to hear Ms. Cross’s “ur-performance.” As with so many of Britten’s custom-made roles the notes fit her voice perfectly. The orchestral playing is rich and thrilling, even through the 1950s live technical limitations. Peter Pears sings well enough, but seems miscast as the ardent young Earl of Essex and the Queen’s love interest. The cast is populated with other Covent Garden and Britten stalwarts of the day: the young Geraint Evans, Monica Sinclair, Jennifer Vyvyan.
Besides the Gloriana recording, I have also downloaded the Walton recording which includes Façade. It is also commendable, despite some minor slips in the instrumental playing. Cross and Pears are deadpan in the recitations of Edith Sitwell’s surreal poems.
The recordings are available as mp3 and lossless downloads through the Chandos download site at reasonable prices (in British pounds).
One of the upcoming recordings announced is a Covent Garden of Britten’s Peter Grimes from 1958, with Pears and Sylvia Fisher, who, notably, does NOT appear in the composer’s recording of the opera made a few months later. This endeavor is worthy of support.