© Rob Barnett, August 2009
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)
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):