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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Serenade, Nocturne, Les Illuminations, Sinfonia da Requiem, Suite on English Folk Tunes, Diversions, Overtures, Ballads  (For full contents see below)
Ian Bostridge, Peter Donohoe, Elisabeth Söderström, Robert Tear, Sir Thomas Allen, Berliner Philharmoniker, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
Simon Rattle Edition
[5 CDs: 337:00]


Experience Classicsonline

EMI’s latest release in its Simon Rattle Edition showcases his Britten recordings.  It is on the whole fantastic and, along with his Mahler set, deserves to take its place among Rattle’s finest achievements.

Many of these recordings have already achieved an awesome reputation in their own right, and the crowning glory here is the War Requiem.  This is an astonishing interpretation of one of the great works of the 20th century.  The performance itself is wonderful, but it is the demonstration quality of the sound that really sets it apart from its competitors.  It’s well known that Britten planned the work with three components: the main orchestra and choir to sing the Latin liturgy, a distant boys’ choir to sing some passages, and a close-up chamber orchestra to accompany the Owen poems with the tenor and baritone soloist.  Every recording worth its salt has tried to capture these contrasting acoustics, but for me it is Rattle’s that does so most successfully.  Engineers John Willan and Michael Sheady surpass even the achievements of John Culshaw on Britten’s own recording, so striking is the difference in the spacing and balance.  The acoustic is ideally suited to each component, making the work come alive in a more well rounded and enveloping way than any I have heard before.  As for the performance Hickox’s version may have more convincing soloists, but it is Rattle’s command of the arc of the score that convinced me more.  That is in no way to denigrate the achievements of Elisabeth Söderstrom, Robert Tear and Thomas Allen, all of whom are well contrasted and, in their own way, excellent.  It is just that the cast iron grip of the orchestration and structure impressed me most, and the choral work is beyond praise.  Simon Halsey really transformed the CBSO Chorus in the 1980s and their clarity of diction sits alongside their musical assuredness in great tribute to Halsey’s achievements.  Just listen to the fugal sections of the Offertorio to see what I mean.  Every section of the orchestra shines in the enveloping acoustic, such as the hair-raising brass at the beginning of the Dies Irae, and the shattering climax of the Libera Me, leading the way for the stunned deadness of the final Strange Meeting.  This great recording at budget price is reason enough to consider this set.  The other, related work, is Ballad of Heroes which also appears on Hickox’s War Requiem.  It is secure and exciting here, with excellent diction making nearly all the words easily understood.  Robert Tear’s noble tenor solo increases the poignancy of this pacifist hymn.  The Building of the House and Praise We Great Men are less substantial choral works but just as satisfying in their own way. 

The other reason to grab this set at the earliest opportunity is Ian Bostridge’s recording of the three great orchestral cycles with the BPO.  Each of these is a revelation, and with Rattle and Bostridge you feel like you are eavesdropping on one of the truly great musical collaborations of our time.  Bostridge captures the unique mood of each song but is a master of characterisation so that these readings are never routine.  He sounds heroic at the start of Les Illuminations, matching the big sound from the Berlin Phil, but becomes more sensuous for Phrase, if not quite seductive enough in Antique.  He also achieves an unsettling, malevolent snarl in Parade.  The other cycles are more intimate.  The Serenade for tenor, horn and strings feels much more like a conversation piece, with a beautifully nuanced prologue played by Radek Baborák.  Again, Bostridge conjures up a different atmosphere for each song, terrifying in the Dirge and Elegy but positively bucolic for the Hymn.  The Keats setting is spectral and enchanting.  Each instrumental obbligato is taken with immense character in the Nocturne and the singing is as excellent here as elsewhere.  The Wordsworth setting, for example, has a sense of growing horror, leading up to a terrible roar at the final “Sleep no more!”, while the next song is an incredible contrast.  This disc got rave reviews when it was first released, and it is wonderful to have it included in this bargain box. 

The other major recording here is the Sinfonia da Requiem, played with remarkable assurance, its dark, brooding tone glowering convincingly.  Not all of the other works in the set are as worthy – I didn’t care much for the American Overture or Russian Funeral – but  some works deserve to be much better known.  The Diversions are really engaging and Young Apollo is energetic music, strikingly played: it is hard to see why Britten suppressed it.  The Suite on English Folk Songs is a world away from Vaughan Williams: it is dark and sarcastic where RVW is bright and cheerful, but the final song, Lord Melbourne, oozes melancholy in its cor anglais solo.  The Canadian Carnival overture and Scottish Ballad are much more folksy, without ever being whimsical.  Jill Gomez is most seductive in the Quatre Chansons françaises, sounding almost like a young Janet Baker.  The Young Person’s Guide is quite fantastic, showcasing the CBSO at its peak in, again, demonstration quality sound.  You can hear exactly where each instrument is placed and it makes the whole thing tremendously enjoyable: listen to the theme being bounced around by the strings to see what I mean. 

All told, then, this set is an outstanding bargain, a chance to collect some of the greatest Britten recordings around at a bargain price, though don’t expect sung texts or translations.  The performances are outstanding, the singing is never less than excellent and Rattle conducts with assurance and skill that shed new light on these great works.  Not to be missed.

Simon Thompson

Full Tracklisting

CD 1 [78:06]
[1] An American Overture, Op. 27* 10.27
Ballad of Heroes, Op.14+
[2] I. Funeral March – 5.47
[3] II. Scherzo – 4.24
[4] III. Recitative and Choral 6.20
Robert Tear (tenor)
Diversions for piano (left hand) and orchestra, Op. 21=
[5] Theme – 1.19
[6] Variation I: Recitative – 1.38
[7] Variation II: Romance – 1.20
[8] Variation III: March – 1.14
[9] Variation IV: Arabesque – 1.50
[10] Variation V: Chant – 1.48
[11] Variation VI: Nocturne – 2.00
[12] Variation VII: Badinerie – 1.20
[13] Variation VIII: Burlesque – 1.36
[14] Variation IX: Toccata I – Toccata II – Cadenza – 2.49
[15] Variation X: Adagio – 4.00
[16] Variation XI: Finale (Tarantella) 2.30
Peter Donohoe (piano)
[17] The Building of the House - Overture, Op. 79+ 5.05
Praise We Great Men (1976)+
Edited and orchestrated by Colin Matthews
[18] ‘Praise we great men’ – 3.29
[19] ‘Praise we the just’ – 2.22
[20] [Coda] 1.30
Alison Hargan (soprano), Mary King (contralto), Robert Tear (tenor), Willard White (bass)
Suite on English Folk Tunes: ‘A time there was…’, Op. 90*
[21] I. Cakes and Ale 2.34
[22] II. The Bitter Withy 2.56
[23] III. Hankin Booby 2.31
[24] IV. Hunt the Squirrel 1.18
[25] V. Lord Melbourne 5.25
(Peter Walden, cor anglais)
CD 2 [77:33]
[1] Canadian Carnival, Op. 19# (Wesley Warren, trumpet) 14.02
[2] Young Apollo, Op. 16# 7.37
Peter Donohoe (piano), Felix Kok & Jeremy Ballard (violins), Peter Cole (viola), Michal Kaznowski (cello)
Quatre Chansons Françaises (1928)#
[3] 1. Les Nuits de juin 2.49
[4] 2. Sagesse 2.49
[5] 3. L’Enfance 4.31
[6] 4. Chanson d’automne 2.26
Jill Gomez (soprano)
[7] Scottish Ballad, Op. 26# 15.15
Peter Donohoe & Philip Fowke (pianos)
[8] Occasional Overture, Op.38* 7.12
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20*
[9] I. Lacrymosa (Andante ben misurato) – 8.39
[10] II. Dies irae (Allegro con fuoco) – 5.23
[11] III. Requiem aeternam (Andante molto tranquillo) 6.27
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
+CBSO Chorus (chorus master Simon Halsey) / Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded: *23 & 24.V.1984 and (using 20-bit A/D conversion) +=15–17.VII.1990; Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick
#22 & 23.IV.1982; Cheltenham Town Hall, Producer: *#John Willan and +=David R. Murray, Balance engineer: *#Michael Sheady and +=Mike Clements
(P) *1986, +=1991 and #1982 EMI Records Ltd
CD 3 [74:55]
Les Illuminations, Op. 18 (1939) for high voice and string orchestra
Poems by Arthur Rimbaud
[1] I. Fanfare 1.55
[2] II. Villes 2.28
[3] IIIa. Phrase 1.01
[4] IIIb. Antique 2.05
[5] IV. Royauté 1.39
[6] V. Marine 0.59
[7] VI. Interlude 2.33
[8] VII. Being Beauteous 4.03
[9] VIII. Parade 2.56
[10] IX. Départ 3.01
Serenade, Op. 31 for tenor, horn and strings
[11] Prologue 1.45
[12] Pastoral (Cotton) 3.25
[13] Nocturne (Tennyson) 3.35
[14] Elegy (Blake) 3.52
[15] Dirge (Anon.) 3.17
[16] Hymn (Jonson) 2.04
[17] Sonnet (Keats) 3.58
[18] Epilogue 2.05
Nocturne, Op. 60 for tenor solo, seven obbligato instruments and string orchestra
[19] On a poet’s lips I slept – 3.21
[20] Below the thunders of the upper deep (Stefan Schweigert, bassoon) – 3.19
[21] Encinctured with a twine of leaves (Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp) – 2.37
[22] Midnight’s bell goes ting, ting, ting, ting, ting (Radek Baborák, horn) – 2.19
[23] But that night when on my bed I lay (Wieland Weizel, timpani) – 3.09
[24] She sleeps on soft, last breaths (Dominik Wollenweber, cor anglais) – 5.13
[25] What is more gentle than a wind in summer?
(Andreas Blau, flute; Wenzel Fuchs, oboe) – 3.25
[26] When most I wink, then do my eyes best see 4.42
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Radek Baborák (horn), Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded: 4, 9 & 10.IV.2005; Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin
CD 4 [60:41]
War Requiem, Op. 66
Words from the Missa pro defunctis; poems by Wilfred Owen
I. Requiem aeternam
[1] Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine (chorus, boys) 6.09
[2] What passing bells for these who die as cattle? (tenor) 2.20
[3] Kyrie eleison (chorus) 1.24
II. Dies irae
[4] Dies irae, dies illa (chorus) 3.58
[5] Bugles sang, saddening the evening air (baritone) 2.46
[6] Liber scriptus proferetur (soprano, semi-chorus) 2.46
[7] Out there, we ‘ve walked quite friendly up to Death (tenor, baritone) 1.46
[8] Recordare Jesu pie (chorus) 4.44
[9] Be slowly lifted uo, thou long black arm (baritone) 1.53
[10] Dies irae, dies illa (chorus) 1.17
[11] Lacrimosa dies illa (soprano, chorus) 2.06
[12] Move him into the sun (tenor, soprano, chorus)…Pie Jesu (chorus) 5.51
III. Offertorium
[13] Domine Jesu Christe (boys, chorus) 3.34
[14] So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went (tenor, baritone, boys) 6.14
IV. Sanctus
[15] Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus (soprano, chorus) 3.18
[16] Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini (soprano, chorus) 2.52
[17] After the blast of lightning from the East (baritone) 3.43
[18] V. Agnus Dei 3.44
CD 5 [45:35]
War Requiem, Op. 66 (continued)
VI. Libera me
[1] Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna (soprano, chorus) 7.34
[2] It seemed that out of battle I escaped (tenor, baritone) 9.47
[3] Let us sleep now…In paradisum (tenor, baritone, boys, soprano, chorus) 5.25
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano), Robert Tear (tenor), Sir Thomas Allen (baritone)
Boys of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford (directed by Francis Grier) CBSO Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle, Mark Blatchly (chamber organ)
Recorded: 27.II and 1 & 4.III.1983; The Great Hall, University of Birmingham
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34 (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell)
[4] Theme (Allegro maestoso e largamente) 1.57
[5] Var. A: Flutes and piccolo 0.30
[6] Var. B: Oboes (Lento) 0.57
[7] Var. C: Clarinets (Moderato) 0.45
[8] Var. D: Bassoons (Allegro alla marcia) 0.51
[9] Var. E: Violins (Brillante: alla polacca) 0.32
[10] Var. F: Violas (Meno mosso) 1.02
[11] Var. G: Cellos 1.14
[12] Var. H: Double basses (Comminciando lento ma poco a poco accel. al Allegro) 1.00
[13] Var. I: Harp (Maestoso) 0.47
[14] Var. J: Horns (L’istesso tempo) 0.50
[15] Var. K: Trumpets (Vivace) 0.33
[16] Var. L: Trombones and bass tuba (Allegro pomposo) 1.06
[17] Var. M: Percussion (Moderato) 1.56
[18] Fugue (Allegro molto) 2.49
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded: 28.I.1995; Symphony Hall, Birmingham
[19] Russian Funeral, for Brass and Percussion (1936) 5.47
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded: 1.XII.1994; Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Ian Bostridge, Peter Donohoe, Elisabeth Söderström, Robert Tear, Sir Thomas Allen
Berliner Philharmoniker, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle



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