CD Review


© Rob Barnett, August 2009

Also published by MusicWeb International



Benjamin Britten: The Collector’s Edition

Concertos, orchestral music, chamber music, choral music, songs, folk song, operas.

Details of works and artists at end of review.

EMI Classics 2175262 (37 CDs)

See also Britten biographical article

This Collector's Edition presents a challenge to reviewers. There's so much of it. I could never do it any sort of justice if I approached this as if reviewing a smaller set. This, after all, comprises 37 CDs. As it is all I have been able to do is to sample, reminisce about known recordings and write around the subject. With this caveat stated, let's make a start.

There are three principal strands of Britten recordings. These are broadly tied into and defined by record companies, artists and eras. First we have Britten recording Britten for Decca. It’s very much of the 1960s and of Aldebugh and of Peter Pears. It’s also the most exhaustive survey. And it’s available in several princely Decca boxes. It has panache and authority given its identification with the composer.

Then from the 1980s and 1990s you have an outcrop from the now defunct Collins. These have found their way onto Naxos and very nicely done they are too. Often these involve Britten’s successor at Aldeburgh Steuart Bedford who worked with the composer. There’s no box of these but the series can be picked up inexpensively in individual Naxos discs.

Lastly – and to some extent contemporaneous with the Collins project we have the activities of EMI. These are represented in this box and gravitate around various names: Previn, Rattle and Hickox (pre-Chandos). The outliers in the EMI set are Haitink, Mork, Isserlis, Brunelle, the Endellion Quartet and Iona Brown. Many of these recordings belong to the period 1982-2002. There are appearances by Reginald Goodall, Britten and Pears (songs recorded in the 1940s) and Steuart Bedford. Then again there’s Goodall in a late 1940s Rape of Lucretia and excerpts from Grimes. The Previn Spring Symphony, the Berglund/Haendel Violin Concerto and works directed by Philip Ledger and David Willcocks are firmly of the 1970s.

If you have been around for a while you might not think of Britten and EMI as natural partners. After all Britten was very much Decca property and vice versa. Over the years EMI has gradually amassed a substantial representation of his works. Some of these - often pre Second World War pieces - were never recorded by Decca. Decca are strong on the operas where EMI can only manage a sampling even though some of these have not been tackled by Decca. Paul Bunyan is an operetta but here it comes from EMI/Virgin. The EMI Grimes is Haitink's magnificently recorded 1992 version with Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Grimes. The Turn of the Screw is from 2002 with Ian Bostridge as Peter Quint and Daniel Harding conducting. We also have A Midsummer Night's Dream from 1990 as conducted by Richard Hickox. It's magical and made me regret that Britten never essayed an opera on The Tempest. Finally there's the aforementioned complete 1947 Reginald Goodall-conducted Rape of Lucretia with Pears as the Male Chorus and 40 or so minutes of extracts from a 1948 Grimes with Pears. There he is in much better voice but still with that hint of shredded tone under strain and a certain archness of manner.

While Decca can boast of the authority of recordings where the composer conducts and Pears sings one might naturally want to try something different. This set allows that at length. It also helps if, like me, you are allergic to Pears' voice - though his sappier voice of the 1940s can be heard on CDs 24, 27, 36-37. I have distant yet abiding memories of the almost comedic horror of watching and listening to the braying Pears in a BBC black and white television broadcast in the late 1960s - I think it must have been Owen Wingrave. I turned away. Later experiences confirmed the negative impression. It's a personal foible but an obstacle to enjoyment. That is one of the reasons why this set which offers an alternative approach has such attractions. Even then - as mentioned already - if you would like to hear Pears at his peak EMI offer the 1948 Grimes excerpts and a 1947 Lucretia alongside some Britten folksongs and Purcell realisations, Michelangelo and Donne Sonnet sets. In fairness Pears makes a very positive impression in the lilting Come you not from Newcastle.

Discovering Britten through other approaches has for me had its satisfying discoveries including learning the Serenade through the CFP Ian Partidge analogue 1970s recording and the Violin Concerto, not through Lubotsky, but via Rodney Friend and even more strongly through Ida Haendel. Sadly, maybe, Neil Mackie is preferred over Partridge when the choices were made for the present set. In fact he gives a fine steady and strongly projected performance and Barry Tuckwell is the fruity horn-player. We can regard Colin Matthews' orchestration of Now sleeps the crimson petal as a glowing appendix to the Serenade. Again Tuckwell's horn comes into play in this piece. It is most luminously performed and recorded.

Haendel is favoured for this box over Friend. She gives the Violin Concerto a strong Waltonian romantic ‘kick’ which eludes the more objective Mark Lubotsky on Decca. The same can be said for Andsnes/CBSO and the Piano Concerto over Richter/ECO.

The chamber music is thoroughly explored across CDs 9-14 and we get to hear many of the early works omitted from the Decca edition. The well-regarded mainstays here are the Endellion from 1986, Truls Mørk in the cello suites and Stephen Hough in the solo piano music including a surprisingly touching Nocturne (part of the Sonatina romantica). Much more declamatory and rugged is the Introduction and Rondo Burlesca in which Hough is joined by Ronan O'Hora. On CD 14 the remainder is mopped up including the Suite for violin and piano (Barantschik), the Cello Sonata with the underrated Moray Welsh, the Six Metamorphoses (Roy Carter) and Bream's 1992 Dowland Nocturnal. In the latter Bream delights in the technical and mood complexities of the dissonantly obsessive and plangent Inquieto. Speaking of Bream, reminds me of another absentee from this box - the chamber ensemble version of The Courtly Dances from Gloriana. This was enjoyably set down by the Bream Consort in the 1960s but that was a Decca or possibly RCA item. As compensation we do hear the dances in their full orchestral regalia with the RLPO and Takuo Yuasa. Gloriana was never recorded by Decca - at least not while Britten was alive. This Coronation year opera seems to have missed a beat. It lived on in the Symphonic Suite and the Courtly Dances as arranged by Julian Bream. The suite includes the Dances as well as a sumptuously haunting yet gentle Lute Song which is beautifully put across in this set by Jonathan Small (oboe) and Mair Jones (harp). This is Britten in pastoral English mode - a rare occurrence. The Tudor percussive patterning was to be picked up again in the Hankin Booby movement of the late suite A time there was here played on CD 6 by Rattle and the CBSO.

Another stalwart across this set is Robert Tear. He is often good but sounds tested to discomfort in the quick fire When will my May come in Previn's otherwise fine version of the Spring Symphony. Interesting to see that for that celebrity 1978 recording the chorus-master was none other than Richard Hickox who was then soon to make his Rubbra Masses LP for RCA with the St Margaret’s Singers.

CD 21 is, for me, one of the most intriguing. It includes The Company of Heaven music to a radio play on the subject of angels - it is by no means entirely serene. The war in heaven movement is restive, urgent and full of drum and organ-emphasised attack. Unusually for Britten the searing emotional strings at the end of that movement cry out with undisguised passion.

There are some possibly surprising artist entries in this set. I have already mentioned Reginald Goodall - more strongly associated later in his career with Wagner and Bruckner. Sarah Brightman better known for the Lloyd Webber connection is on CD26 in six Britten folksongs. Jonathan Lemalu is there in a 2005 recording of the Tit for Tat cycle. Söderström rides the whooping wave of Our Hunting Fathers - for me one of Britten's masterpieces. Try the eruptive wildness of the Rats Away movement which might almost have been written for Jane Manning such are its demands. Söderström puts this across well though I have heard more possessed performances including a broadcast by Heather Harper with Charles Groves and the BBCSO on 27 July 1976. This is writing that is neither cerebral nor precious. It carries a glorious emotional cargo as well as being brilliant. This paved the way for other rapturous concert pieces such as Maw's Scenes and Arias. The Vasari Singers give us the late choral cycle Sacred and Profane. Join the queue to kick me for decadent taste when I express my regret at the continued absence from the catalogue of Swingle II’s version of Hymn to St Cecilia but then that disc also offers my favourite version of RVW's Three Shakespeare Songs. Still, that Swingle II LP (RL25112) from about 1975 is an RCA item. It should be reissued and urgently.

The big players in this set are Rattle and the CBSO with supporting roles for Steuart Bedford, Hickox, Ledger and Marriner. There are also one-offs of great distinction. Take Knussen and the London Sinfonietta in the gamelan-bejewelled Prince of the Pagodas - wonderful score - a legacy of a world tour that took him to the South Seas and into contact with another gamelan-influenced composer, Colin McPhee with whom he recorded on 78s a two piano version of Balinese Ceremonial music. There’s also the Previn Spring Symphony recorded at the height of his youthful fame yet with the statesmen and stateswomen of British music as soloists.

My own favourites here include the Diversions for piano (left-hand) and orchestra. Yes, it was written for Paul Wittgenstrein but was never contractually shackled in the way that many such commissions were. I discovered this piece through a wonderful Proms broadcast in 1978 with Viktoria Postnikova and Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Peter Donohoe, champion of many British piano concertos is splendidly at one with the work’s grotesquerie. The gaunt Russian Funeral Music is magnificent dour and tragic. The wild-eyed Grainger-quirky A Time There was is wonderful - one of the works that Bernstein recorded in Britten's last years. The Ballad of Heroes to mark the Spanish Civil War has Republican-orientated words by Swingler and Auden. This sincere and moving work would pair well with RVW's Dona Nobis Pacem and Holst's Dirge for Two Veterans.

The Paul Bunyan operetta is quirky but delightful and perhaps belongs in a loosely bounded genre with Copland's The Tender Land, Shostakovich's Cheryamushki, Walter Leigh's Jolly Roger, Anthony Burgess' Blooms of Dublin (will this ever be revived, I wonder) and Tippett's ballad-opera Robin Hood.

Pesek's RLPO from 1990 give a splendid reading of the Sinfonia da Requiem which is also wonderfully done by Previn on the same label (but not here). It is an impressive work with a scorching and completely confident mature power. There are early indications that he had been impressed by Shostakovich and even hints that Bernard Herrmann might have been inspired by this work in his Death Hunt horn scherzo from On Dangerous Ground. The close-up bells of Sunday Morning in the Grimes interludes toll with more than sadness. There's threat there too; I have never heard that before. The symphonic gravamen of the Grimes' Passacagalia is also well done and here benefits from being placed between Moonlight and the uproar and welter of Storm. That Passacaglia has the epic stride of Lennox Berkeley's 1946 Nocturne for Orchestra - still unrecorded along with many of his early works including the oratorio Jonah, the grand cello concerto and much else. I rather miss the heroism and grandeur of those early works – the later elegance and sophistication is a thin substitute. Britten's early music was no whit less brilliant as we can hear in the warmly recorded Young Apollo with Donohoe as the thunderous dazzling pianist and the violinist Felix Kok (then Leader of the CBSO) among the soloists.

This is another wonderful bargain from EMI. You make sacrifices though in return for a compact clamshell box and a very low price. There are no notes at all and no texts - yet much of this music is vocal. So you may need to go looking for texts and background - not that it is in short supply. Also you may well benefit from the undistracted concentration of listening to just the music.

So this box is certainly for you if you plan or even hope to explore Britten for the first time. It is also an apt purchase if you would like to encounter new approaches to interpretation freed somewhat from the iconic Britten-Decca Aldeburgh hegemony of the 1960s and 1970s. I have to concede that the great Decca legacy bears the authoritaitve imprimatur of the composer but if Britten's music is to live it must continue to find new voices.

This set is full of surprises and pleasures An outstanding bargain and an alternative route to Britten.

Details of works and artists (full tracklisting available here):

Sinfonia da Requiem op. 20
Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes op. 33
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra op. 34
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pesek. rec. 1989

Canadian Carnival op. 19
Wesley Warren, trumpet. City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle.
rec. 1982
Diversions for Piano (left hand) and Orchestra op. 21
Peter Donohoe, piano. City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle. rec.
Scottish Ballad op. 26
Peter Donohoe, Philip Fowke, pianos. City of Birmingham SO/Sir
Simon Rattle. rec. 1982
An American Overture op. 27
Occasional Overture op. 38
City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle. rec. 1984
Building of the House op. 79
CBSO Chorus/Simon Halsey. City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 1990

Piano Concerto op. 13
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano. City of Birmingham SO/Paavo Järvi. rec.
Violin Concerto op. 15
Ida Haendel, violin. Bournemouth SO/Paavo Berglund. rec. 1977
Young Apollo op. 16
Peter Donohoe, piano. Felix Kok, Jeremy Ballard, violins. Peter Cole,
viola. Michal Kaznowski, cello.
City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle. rec. 1982

Simple Symphony op. 4 (rec. 1990)
Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge op. 10 (rec. 1988)
Prélude and Fugue op. 29
Lachrymae op. 48a
Lars Anders Tomter, viola. Norwegian Chamber Orchestra/Iona Brown.
rec. 1991

Symphonic Suite from ‘Gloriana’ op. 53a
Royal Liverpool PO/Takuo Yuasa. rec. 1994
Cello Symphony op. 68
Steven Isserlis, cello. City of London Sinfonia/Nicholas Ward,
Richard Hickox. rec. 1987
Men of Goodwill (Variations on a Christmas Carol for orchestra)
Minnesota Orchestra/Sir Neville Marriner. rec. 1983

Sinfonietta op. 1
Pauline Lowbury, Julian Tear, violins. Britten Sinfonia/Daniel
Harding. rec. 1997
Russian Funeral
City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle. rec. 1994
Suite on English Folk Tunes ‘A time there was…’ op. 90
Peter Walden, cor anglais. City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 1984
Matinees Musicales op. 24
Soirees Musicales op. 9
English Chamber Orchestra/Sir Alexander Gibson. rec. 1982
Rossini Suite original version of Soirees Musicales
Boys of the Choir of Paisley Abbey chorus/George McPhee
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/John Tunnell, Steuart Bedford. rec. 1998

The Prince of Pagodas op. 57 Acts I and II

The Prince of Pagodas op. 57 Act III
London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen. rec. 1989

Rhapsody for String Quartet
Elegy for Solo Viola - Garfield Jackson, viola
String Quartet in D - Nicholas Logie, viola

Phantasy for Oboe and String Trio op. 2
Three Divertimenti for String Quartet
String Quartet No. 1 in D op. 25

String Quartet No. 2 in C op. 36
String Quartet No. 3 op. 94
Endellion String Quartet. rec. 1986

Cello Suite No. 1 in G op. 72
Cello Suite No. 2 in D op. 80
Cello Suite No. 3 op. 87
Truls Mørk, cello. rec. 1998 & 2000

The Music For Solo Piano:
Holiday Diary op. 5
Three Character Pieces
From Sonatina Romantica
Five Waltzes – Stephen Hough, piano
Two Lullabies for Two Pianos
Introduction & Rondo alla burlesca op. 23 No. 1
Stephen Hough, Ronan O’Hara, pianos. rec. 1990

Suite for Violin and Piano op. 6
Alexander Barantschik, violin. John Adey, piano. rec. 1994
Cello Sonata in C op. 65
Moray Welsh, cello. John Lenehan, piano. rec. 1994
Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for Solo Oboe op. 49
Roy Carter, oboe. rec. 1995
Nocturnal after John Dowland op. 70
Julian Bream, guitar. rec. 1992

War Requiem op. 66
Requiem aeternam
Dies irae
Agnes Dei

Libera Me
Elisabeth Soderstrom, soprano. Robert Tear, tenor. Sir Thomas Allen,
Mark Blatchly, chamber organ. Boys of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford/
Francis Grier
CBSO Chorus/Simon Halsey. City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle.
rec. 1983
Spring Symphony op. 44 Parts I-IV
Sheila Armstrong, soprano. Dame Janet Baker, contralto. Robert Tear,
St. Clement Danes School Boys’ Choir/Keith Walters. London Symphony
Chorus/Richard Hickox
LSO/Andre Previn. rec. 1978

Hymn to St. Cecilia op. 27
A Ceremony of Carols op. 28
James Clark, Julian Godlee, trebles. Osian Ellis, harp
Miss brevis in D op. 63
Julian Brown, Christopher Anderson, Anthony Sackville, Rory Phillips &
James Clark, trebles. Ian Hare, organ.
Festival Te Deum op. 32
Simon Channing, treble. James Lancelot, organ
Rejoice in the Lamb op. 30
Simon Channing, treble. James Bowman, countertenor. Richard Morton,
tenor. Marcus Creed, bass.
James Lancelot, organ. David Corkhill, percussion.
Te Deum in C
Rory Phillips, treble. James Lancelot, organ
Jubilate Deo
James Lancelot, organ. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir David
Willcocks, Sir Philip Ledger. rec. 1971, 72 & 74

A Hymn to the Virgin
Stephen Barton, Hugh Hudleston, treble. Warren Trevelyan-Jones, tenor
Francis Pott, bass
Winchester Cathedral Choir/David Hill. rec. 1996
Saint Nicolas op. 42
Robert Tear, tenor. Bruce Russell, treble. Andrew Davis & Ian Hare,
piano duet.
Cambridge Girl’s Choir, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner, Sir David
Willcocks. rec. 1970.
Hymn to St. Peter op. 56a
Mark Emney, Peter Rowe, trebles. Timothy Farrell, organ. Wandsworth
School Choir/Russell Burgess. rec. 1968
A Hymn of St. Columba – Regis regum rectissimi op. 56a
Mark Emney, Peter Rowe, trebles. Christopher Hughes, Timothy Farrell,
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Wandsworth School Choir/Russell
Burgess. rec. 1968
Sacred and Profane op. 91
Vasari Singers. Jeremy Backhouse. rec. 1992

The Little Sweep – A Children’s Opera in 3 Scenes op. 45 rec. 1977
A Boy was Born op. 3
London Sinfonietta Chorus. Choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral/John
Scott, Terry Edwards
A Shepherd’s Carol for unaccompanied chorus, words by W. H. Auden
Sarah Leonard, soprano. Susan Bickley, mezzo-soprano. Peter Hall,
tenor. Gordon Jones, baritone.
London Sinfonietta Chorus/Terry Edwards. rec. 1988

Noye’s Fludde op. 59 rec. 1898
AMDG words by Gerard Manley Hopkins
London Sinfonietta Chorus/Terry Edwards. rec. 1987 & 1988
The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard
Baccholian Singers of London. Rogers Covey-Crump, Ian Partridge, Ian
Thompson, Paul Elliott, tenors
Ian Humphris, Stephen Varcoe, baritones. Michael George, Brian
Etheridge, bass. rec. 1976

The Company of Heaven Parts I, II & III
Peter Barkworth, Sheila Allen, narrators. Cathryn Pope, soprano. Dan
Dressen, tenor. Christopher Herrick, organ
London Philharmonic Chorus/Richard Cooke. English Chamber Orchestra/Philip Brunelle rec. 1989
Ballad of Heroes op. 14
Robert Tear, tenor. CBSO Chorus/Simon Halsey. City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle
Praise We Great Men
Alison Hargan, soprano. Mary King, contralto. Robert Tear, tenor
Willard White, bass.
CBSO Chorus/Simon Halsey. City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 1990

Les Illuminations op. 18
Heather Harper, soprano. Northern Sinfonia Orchestra/Sir Neville
Marriner. rec. 1970
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings op. 31
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal (Tennyson)
Neil Mackie, tenor, Barry Tuckwell, horn. Scottish C.O./John Tunnell,
Steuart Bedford. rec. 1988
Nocturne op. 60
Robert Tear, tenor. English C.O./Jeffrey Tate. rec. 1987

Quatre Chansons Francaises
Jill Gomez, soprano. City of Birmingham SO/Sir Simon Rattle. rec.
Our Hunting Fathers op. 8
Folksong Arrangements
Elisabeth Soderstrom, soprano. Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera/
Richard Armstrong. rec. 1982
Phaedra op. 93
Felicity Palmer, mezzo-soprano. Jane Salmon, cello. Melvyn Tan,
harpsichord. Endymion Ensemble/John Whitfield
Five French Folksong Arrangements
Felicity Palmer, mezzo-soprano. Endymion Ensemble/John Whitfield.
rec. 1986

Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo op. 22
Peter Pears, tenor, Benjamin Britten, piano. rec. 1942
Holy Sonnets of John Donne op. 35
Peter Pears, tenor, Benjamin Britten, piano. rec. 1947
On This Island op. 11
Winter Words op. 52
Robert Tear, tenor. Sir Philip Ledger, piano. rec. 1973

The Five Canticles
Folksong Arrangements
Ian Bostridge, tenor. David Daniels, counter-tenor. Christopher Maltman,
Timothy Brown, horn. Aline Brewer, harp. Julius Drake, piano

Two Songs by Thomas Hardy
Beware! Three Early Songs
Two Songs by W. H. Auden
Three Rhymes by William Soutar
Neil Mackie, tenor. Roger Vignoles, piano. rec. 1986
Tit for Tat (5 settings of poems by Walter de la Mare)
Jonathan Lemalu, bass baritone. Malcolm Martineau, piano. rec. 2005
Two Ballads for Two Voices and Piano
Felicity Lott, soprano. Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano. Graham Johnson,
piano. rec. 1991
Folksong Arrangements
Robert Tear, tenor. Sir Philip Ledger, piano. rec. 1974
Sarah Brightman, soprano. Geoffrey Parsons, piano. rec. 1986

Realisations of Henry Purcell – Odes and Elegies
The Queen’s Epicedium
Peter Pears, tenor. Benjamin Britten, piano. rec. 1947
Orpheus Britannicus
Felicity Lott, soprano. Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano. Graham Johnson,
piano. rec. 1991.
Neil Mackie, tenor. Roger Vignoles, piano. rec. 1986
Suite of Songs for High Voice and Orchestra
Neil Mackie, tenor. Scottish C.O./John Tunnell, Steuart Bedford. rec.
Orchestrations of Schubert & Schumann
Neil Mackie, tenor. Scottish C.O./John Tunnell, Steuart Bedford. rec.

Paul Bunyan – Operetta in 2 acts and prologue op. 17 – ACT I rec. 1987

Paul Bunyan – ACT II
Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of the Plymouth Music Series / Philip Brunelle

CD30 + CD31
Peter Grimes rec. 1992
Anthony Rolfe Johnson; Felicity Lott; Thomas Allen; Patricia Payne; Maria Bovino; Gillian Webster; Stuart Kale; Stafford Dean; Sarah Walker; Neil Jenkins; Simon Keenlyside; David Wilson-Johnson
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Bernard Haitink

CD32 + CD33
The Turn of the Screw rec. 2002
Ian Bostridge; Joan Rodgers; Julian Leang; Caroline Wise; Jane Henschel; Vivian Tierney
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Harding

CD34 + CD35
A Midsummer Night’s Dream rec. 1990
James Bowman; Lillian Watson; Dexter Fletcher; John Graham-Hall; Henry Herford; Della Jones; Jill Gomez; Norman Bailey; Penelope Walker
Trinity Boys’ Choir; City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox

CD36 + CD37
The Rape of Lucretia op. 37 Opera in 2 acts rec. 1947
Peter Pears; Joan Cross; Norman Lumsden; Denis Dowling; Frederick Sharp; Nancy Evans; Flora Nielsen; Margaret Ritchie
English Opera Group Chamber Orchestra/Reginald Goodall
Scenes from Peter Grimes op. 33. rec. 1948
Peter Pears, tenor; Joan Cross, Tom Culbert, Herbert Dawson, BBC Theatre Chorus, Orchestra of the ROH Covent Garden/Reginald Goodall