In 1944, a year after it was composed, Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings began a long streak of excellence on disc. Six decades later we have this acclaimed new one from Ian Bostridge, so it seems worthwhile to compare it to the best from the past. (I will name my personal favorites at the end.)
Pears 1944: The Gramophone calls this, the premiere recording, 'unsurpassable,' and so it would seem with the unique combination of Peter Pears, the tenor voice for which the work was written, Dennis Brain, the young horn virtuoso whom Britten also had in mind, and Britten himself conducting. There are some drawbacks, though, principally the ugly wartime sonics, which are murky and boxed-in. Pears is not as dramatic as he would become later on, and although Brain is very musical and supple in tone, he doesn't extract the last ounce of intensity from his part.
Pears 1964: Pears' remake is the unsurpassable one, perhaps. We get excellent stereo from Decca, and Britten's conducting is more or less perfect. Barry Tuckwell sets a new standard in the horn part, taking hair-raising risks and underlining the darker side of the score. Pears has grown immensely in his interpretation of the poetry, but one can't escape that he is 20 years older--his voice is obviously under strain in the more difficult passages and at loud volume. Even so, his depth and artistry quickly make you forget anything but the music itself--a great recording from everyone involved.
Rolfe-Johnson 1991: The Gramophone loved this recording when it came out on Chandos. The outstanding performer here is the tenor, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, who took up Pears' artistic mantle. Like Pears he has a narrow, focused tenor with a prominent head tone (R-J's sound is sweeter and less idiosyncratic than Pears'), but more importantly Rolfe-Johnson does almost as much with the poetry as his great predecessor. The conducting by Bryden Thomson is fine, and so is the horn player, Michael Thompson, though he is too cautious to take the kind of risks Tuckwell did.
Langridge 1994: This recording, originally on Collins Clasics, is on Naxos now. Philip Langridge is the doppelganger to Rolfe-Johnson, both being Britten specialists who have recorded most of his major tenor roles. Langridge has the bigger voice, with an unusual but pleasant nasality. It's less focused than Rolfe-Johnson's or Pears', so the pitch can spread a little, and some wobble creeps in under pressure. On this CD Langridge gives a notably quiet, tender reading, with a lot of variation in tone and poetic sensitivity. He is aided by the excellent conducting of Britten's disciple, Steuart Bedford. The horn playing of Frank Lloyd matches the singer in tenderness, even if he isn't the daredevil that Tuckwell was--Lloyd's suppleness is closer to Brain's in approach.
Bostridge 1999: The latest generation of Pears' descendants is represented by Ian Bostridgee, who has attained more fame than the previous two tenors outside Britain. Bostridge's voice started out quite slender and cooing, so he can't attack the Serenade's more strenuous parts head on. His solution is to give a lighter, quicker version that is refreshingly different. His hornist, Marie-Luise Neunecker, is a true virtuoso, more at home in this music than any player since Tuckwell. She is also caught in vivid, clear sound by EMI. Ingo Metzmacher's condcuting sometimes lacks zest and impact, though it passes muster well enough.
Bostridge 2005: Bostridge got to remake the Serenade for EMI after only a few years, not the twenty that Pears waited. In the interim his voice has acquired more weight--it's still the lightest of any being considered here, however--and that extra heft helps him to deepen his interpretation, adding more darkness and mystery to the text (mystery being one of this singer's best modes). The presence of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil. strings certainly ups the ante, and the first horn of the orchestra, Radek Baborak, at last brings us Tuckwell's equal in daring and risk-taking. British critics have acclaimed this recording as the only modern one to stand beside Pears/Britten, but I think Rattle and Bostridge are both a little guilty of fussiness; every syllable and musical phrase is underlined to the point where we notice the performers more than the music at times.
I have owned Serenades by other singers like Martyn Hill and John Mark Ainsley, both on EMI and both in the boyish tenor vein of Bostridge, if without his notable intelligence and musical insight. I would be hapy to own either of Bostridge's efforts, but the ones that send chills down my spine are by Rolfe-Johnson and Pears 1964.
P.S., Feb. 2009 -- I see that The Graomphone, surveying every recording of Les Illuminations, picked Bostridge/Rattle as the best. but to my ears, the singer strains hard at the high-flying vocal part and mostly loses the battle. A more vibrant lyrical voice is needed. Or a soprano, since the solo part is for "high voice," not specifically a tenor.