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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976)
Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings Op.31 (1943)
Sally in our alley (arr. Britten)
The bonny Earl O'Moray (arr. Britten)
The last rose of Summer (Moore, arr. Britten)
Avenging and bright (Moore, arr. Britten)
William WALTON (1902 - 1983)
Façade: An Entertainment
Peter Pears (tenor); Dennis Brain (horn); The Boyd Neel String Orchestra; Benjamin Britten (piano [Folksong arrangements] and conductor [Serenade])
Dame Edith Sitwell, Peter Pears; English Opera Group Ensemble; Anthony Collins
Recorded: May and October 1944 (Serenade) ; October 1959, November 1961 (Folksongs) and 1953 (Façade)
DECCA 468 801-2 [73:42]

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Britten's Serenade Op.31, completed in 1943, was first performed by Pears, Brain and the Boyd Neel String Orchestra conducted by Boyd Neel. A few months later the same performers, now conducted by Britten, recorded it for DECCA. This 1944 performance is now available again. It thus provides us with an early view of that celebrated piece and from this reading it appears that the original performers had still to refine their views of the piece. Pears' and Britten's later recording of the Serenade shows how both had thought about it in the meantime. Pears is stricter in his later approach whereas Britten conducts with more precision as to the overall balance and as to the numerous instrumental details. The most striking feature of the 1944 recording is Dennis Brain's impeccable rendering of the horn part. His performance is, to my mind, unrivalled at the time of writing though there exist many fine recordings of this wonderful piece. However, the present re-issue of that historical performance is let down by the recorded sound which shows its age (at times up to saturation). Good to have it anyway, were it only to have an idea of what the piece may have sounded like to its first audiences.

The folksong arrangements have, of course, a better sound. These may be trifles although Britten devoted much care and affection to his arrangements. A nice fill-up to this interesting release.

Walton's Façade, of which this was - I suppose - the very first complete recording, is the composer's first important achievement. It is an enormously entertaining work, full of mild pastiche and parody (even a quotation from Rossini in Yodelling Song) but also many wonderful instrumental writing, often subtle touches of refined imagination. No wonder indeed that this particular piece of his almost made Walton the umpteenth member of Le Groupe des Six. In this 1953 recording, Dame Edith Sitwell and Pears are the reciters, and - as far as I am concerned - Dame Edith Sitwell is one of the best reciters ever of her own words. Moreover she has an extraordinary sense of rhythm and her reciting is firm-voiced (if I may put it like that). Another remarkable feature of this performance is Anthony Collins' preparation of the accompaniment and the quality of the playing, preserved by a fine recording which wears its age lightly.

The present release is most welcome and well worth having for Façade, even if the 1944 performance of Britten's Serenade is rather of documentary interest.

Hubert Culot

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