© Chris Green, October 2013
There is no denying that, even in death, Britten courts controversy. This year marks the 100 th anniversary of his birth in the Suffolk coastal town on Lowestoft – looking as it does – over the North Sea to the Netherlands. The sea was to play an important part in his life. Not only did it keep him from returning from the USA after the outbreak of the Second World War, but it plays a major role in his first international hit with Peter Grimes, an opera recreated on the beach at Aldeburgh where Britten lived as part of the 2013 Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts.
The press in the UK has been filled with articles and letters about Britten- his music and, what is more disturbing, his life.
His birthday is celebrated on St Cecilia’s Day, 21 November and so this month is unsurprisingly busy with many musical events to commemorate the contribution Britten made, not only to British music but also to international music-making. Britten was an innovator in so many ways- the creation of the Aldeburgh Festival must be high amongst these achievements, and the commitment to the building of the Snape Maltings Concert hall, the other. Musically, Britten championed the genre of opera at a time when perhaps cost and opportunities were at a low ebb. It was, of course, the need to stage his own operas that led him to create his own opera company which led to Aldeburgh hosting the first Festival, and so on…
Britten’s music can be found in the catalogues of most recording companies; indeed, he must be amongst the most recorded of mid twentieth century composers alongside Stravinsky and Poulenc. This year has been a opportunity for two of these companies to produce collected editions of his music. His main recording company was Decca, and they release a collected Britten edition this month. Beating them to it, however, has been EMI and from that source comes a 37 CD set of Britten’s concertos, orchestral and chamber music, choral works, songs and folksongs and five of the operas. There are some omissions such as the Church Parables, but this breath-takingly expansive box set is sufficient in itself.
The artists are wide-flung with EMI’s roster including conductors such as Andrew Previn, Simon Rattle and Richard Hickox. The recordings were made over a period but collectively they are all of a high standard. The groupings of works by CD is intelligently done; so typical is CD3 which features three glittering pieces- the Concertos for Piano and Violin and Young Apollo which brings together both instruments together with viola and cello in a performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
Prizes amongst this mouth-watering EMI release is the recording of the opera, The Rape of Lucretia made in 1947 with Reginald Goodall conducting and three singers whom I knew as principals- Peter Pears, Nancy Evans and Joan Cross (CD36), and to crown the set the final CD comprises the 1947 recording of Peter Grimes with Peter Pears in the title role and Joan Cross as Ellen Orford, the woman who sticks up for him when the village turn against him.
Benjamin Britten, The Collector's Edition (EMI 2 17526 2)