Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Prince of the Pagodas (1956) [118:47]
Act 1 [36:34]
Act 2 [41:17]
Act 3 [40:56]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-24) [29:00]
London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen (Britten)
London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst (Bartók)
rec. 23-29 May 1989, St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London (Britten); 30 October 1992, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Bartók) DDD
EMI CLASSICS 50999 9 49829 2 [77:59 + 70:03]
The main reason for acquiring this set is the only recording on CD of Britten’s magical Prince of the Pagodas complete. The composer recorded the work in the 1950s but made large cuts so that it would fit on three LP. Ever since Oliver Knussen’s account was issued, it has been highly praised for both the music and the performance. It originally came out on Virgin by itself and then was reissued on EMI with Britten’s Symphonic Suite from Gloriana - but with the Bournemouth orchestra and Uri Segal conducting - accompanying the ballet.
Now, possibly more logically, another twentieth-century masterpiece of the ballet repertoire is the “filler” for The Prince of the Pagodas. It makes for a very generous coupling and on sheer quantity is a real bargain. However, the Britten in and of itself is cause for some celebration. Except for its length, I do not understand why there have not been more recordings of this marvelous music. It after all is not as long as Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and there are several recordings of that complete score. However, I doubt any could top the performance and recording under review.
Britten composed his colorful score in variation form for John Cranko’s Royal Ballet, which premiered it on 1 January 1957. Although he had been introduced to Balinese gamelan music earlier by Canadian composer Colin McPhee, it was his two-week vacation in Bali in 1956 that led Britten to incorporate the sounds of the Balinese gamelan into his only ballet. This influence is apparent not only in the extensive use of such “exotic” percussion as bells, gongs, xylophone, and vibraphone, but also in the layered texture of the music itself.
The ballet is three acts and the recording has 39 tracks divided fairly equally among the acts. Though the booklet note describes the ballet in some detail, it does not cue the action to the tracks. However, the tracks themselves are all titled, which is a great help. While much of the music has the familiar Britten characteristics that one associates with the works of his maturity, there are apparent or near references throughout to music of other composers. Some of the ones that occurred to me as I listened to the recording several times include the Stravinskian bassoon in the “Entry of the Four Winged Frogs” (Act 1, track 15), Respighi’s Pines of Rome with added gamelan sounds (Act 3, track 4), Stravinsky’s Petrushka or Scherzo ŕ la russe (Act 3, track 10), and even Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra composed in 1954 (Act 2, track 25). These are all filtered through Britten’s own compositional mind, and the ballet throughout its nearly two-hour duration does not contain a dull moment. I was glad to see that the various orchestral soloists get individual credit on the list of tracks for their roles in the work, including David Purser (trombone), John Harle (alto saxophone), Sebastian Bell (flute), Michael Thompson (horn), John Orford (bassoon), the various percussionists and others.
The accompanying work, Bartók’s expressionistic The Miraculous Mandarin, unlike the Britten ballet, has had many recordings among which several are outstanding. The one here is perfectly good, but somehow does not leave the startling impression that it should. After all, Bartók’s ballet was his answer to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, much as Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite was. Like the Britten work, it too is a virtuoso work for orchestra, but very lurid in its coloration as well as its theme. For a much stronger account in stunning sound, turn to Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony on DG or to the idiomatic Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Philips. Both are superior to that offered here, as is the earlier one by Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony on DG which for me is the most exciting of all. All three of these offer the complete ballet, as does Welser-Möst here, that includes the chorus in the penultimate scene, rather than only the concert suite. It may add less than five minutes in overall timing, but it provides the atmosphere the composer intended and makes for a much more logical conclusion to the ballet.
It is great to have Britten’s Prince of the Pagodas widely available again and in such a superb performance with sound to match. As if this were not incentive enough to purchase this set, it is being offered at budget price.
Superb performance and sound make this reissue of Britten’s ballet unmissable.