Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Britten 100 - The Birthday Collection
Full Track-List at end of review
DOCUMENTS 600047 [10 CDs: 6:52:29]
In the avalanche of new and re-released recordings issued to mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth it would be easy to overlook or even ignore this rather dull-looking box. Next to EMI’s Benjamin Britten - The Collector's Edition [37 CDs available for little more than £1.00 per disc is superb value] or the even more daunting Decca offering; Britten - the Complete Works [66 discs which will set you back at least £166.00], Documents’s mere 10 discs would appear to barely scratch the surface. Add the historical nature of the bulk of the recordings (and the inherent audio limitations such an epithet implies), the somewhat random choice of repertoire, the complete lack of liner notes let alone texts and even the £10.00 price-point seems a tad high.
That said, hidden away in this box are at least two if not three recordings/performances which genuinely deserve the title “Great Recordings of the Century”. Large collections of recordings risk duplication of performances and repertoire but I would suggest that anyone with even a passing interest in British 20th century music - regardless of their opinion of Britten in particular - ought to have a recording of Peter Grimes and the Serenade in their collections. That being the case it is hard to argue against the performances offered in this box being as near definitive as makes no difference.
Nearly all those included here are well known and indeed famous so I do not intend to discuss their artistic merit in any great detail. Before moving onto individual discs, listening to this set made me realise that Britten was a lucky composer. I’m talking here about his recorded legacy. He was fortunate to be at his creative peak at a time when Decca where pushing the boundaries of recording techniques and had the budgets and artistic will to invest heavily in a 'contemporary' British composer. The improvement over the decade which covers most of these recordings is astonishing going from murky mono to demonstration class analogue stereo.
Aside from his composing skill Britten was blessed with a seeming ability, when conducting, to inspire the performers involved to produce performances of exceptional quality. Altogether, this created what is probably the finest and most extensive "the composer conducts" archive surpassing even Stravinsky's legacy on Sony/CBS which are simply not of the same technical brilliance. As copyright has now lapsed on the earlier recording companies such as Documents are able, magpie-like, to compile sets such as this. What it may lack in any kind of artistic overview or coherent programming it gains in the sheer musical quality.
To take the discs in order; first up is the Decca-sourced 1953 recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings conducted by Eugene Goossens coupled with the 1958 Les Illuminations. This is my favourite version of the Serenade which features original performers, Peter Pears and Dennis Brain. The first version, with Britten conducting the Boyd Neel String Orchestra, is very fine but suffers from substantially poorer sound. The third Pears recording - a stereo remake again with Britten on the stick is also very fine indeed with Barry Tuckwell as horn soloist but Pears' voice is noticeably less fresh than it was just a few years earlier. Also, the presence of Brain is a major plus. His actual technical playing may not be such a thing of wonder any more, graced as we are with so many superb players, but where he is peerless - pardon the near pun - is interpretatively. This is phenomenally intense and searching playing. The transfers are good although - in direct comparison to the Australian Eloquence version they are slightly more edgy with the strings having a rosiny attack. Les Illuminations does not fare as well - Pears sounds less at ease with the French text and the New Symphony Orchestra are somewhat scrappy. The Serenade is of supreme quality and actually worth the cost of the set alone. Documents's sloppy presentation is evident by the fact that the triptych of these songs cycles is completed with the Nocturne on the second disc even though there is room on the first but only after the one clunking dud of the set - a 1953 (as listed by Michael Kennedy in his Master Musicians Series biography) not 1954 performance conducted by Britten with the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra of the Sinfonia da Requiem. Has this most overtly and directly emotional of all Britten's works sounded quite so laboured? Add the fact it is presented as a single twenty minute track and it rules itself out of court. Then again, with the performance of the Nocturne we are back on classic Decca demonstration quality recording with performance to boot. I must admit I had forgotten what a fine work the Nocturne is. The LSO are in especially refined form with the named soloists from within the orchestra proving what a stellar ensemble they were at the time. William Waterhouse's bassoon is a particular delight. The actual sound Pears makes epitomises the style that people either love or loathe - even his most ardent admirer would be hard pressed to say he possessed the most beautiful tenor voice but the expressive connection with the words is magnificent.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the definitive version of Peter Grimes which occupies discs three and four. This is the complete classic Decca recording from 1958. Listening to this all over again it has to be acknowledged as one of the greatest operas by any composer of the 20th century and with many of the original cast recreating their roles in remarkable Decca Stereo sound this is a performance that might be equalled but can never be surpassed. Direct comparison with the recent Decca re-mastered re-release shows this to be indistinguishable. The absence of texts is actually no hindrance to English speakers - every word is crystal clear. The musical qualities of this set are well known but it is worth a quick mention for the production and engineering team led by Erik Smith. Smith - the son of conductor Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt - was just twenty-seven when he was assigned the production of this opera - his first major recording in the role of producer for Decca. At the time he was very much the junior to John Culshaw but to my ear this recording matches the best of Culshaw's work and it remains one of his greatest achievements.
Quite why Documents decided to include the Britten/Pears 1959 Die schöne Müllerin complete as disc 5 I have no idea. Britten's accompaniments are a model of discrete attentiveness but I do fear Pears' singing here has that arch coyness that puts me off a certain style of lieder singing. I'm glad to have heard it, but alongside direct and ardent contemporary performances such as those from Fritz Wunderlich it simpers. I was rather surprised not to enjoy Eduard van Beinum's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra on disc 6 more. After all, this was the version I grew up with in its Ace of Clubs LP incarnation featuring - why does the brain bother remembering such details! - a pair of young boys earnestly concentrating on a concert. Hearing it again, it comes across as rather rough and scrappy both as a recording and in musical execution. Worse still is van Benium's unsmilingly sober approach with steady rather than exhilarating tempi; there is really no reason to choose this version over dozens of others offered in much finer sound. The coupling is the 1954 Britten/LSO/Julius Katchen performance of the still-little-known Diversions for piano (left hand) and orchestra. This was the coupling on the original Decca LP for the previously mentioned Sinfonia da Requiem but this is a far finer performance. That being said it does not approach the sonic standard Decca would reach just four years later with Peter Grimes. The sound here is detailed but without the richness and warmth of the later recordings. This is a rather fine and enjoyable work which remains stubbornly on the periphery of its composer's well-known works. It strikes me that Katchen hits an excellent balance between drama, wit and bravura. This makes for another short-playing disc, but well worth it for the concertante work.
Disc 7 again represents the arbitrary nature of Documents's programme planning. A 1971 (according to the choir's own website) recording of the ever-popular Ceremony of Carols from the Wiener Sängerknaben. It’s coupled with the only modern performance in the box; a 2002 version of the Violin Concerto from Copenhagen with violinist Sergej Azizian conducted by Osmo Vänskä before his international career blossomed. More challenging to one's preconceptions is the very specific sound of the Viennese boys choir in the former work. This is about as expressive and as far removed from the 'bleached' Anglican church choir sound one has grown accustomed to as it is possible to achieve. The knee-jerk reaction is to think "oh I don't think so" but the longer I listened the more I was drawn into this version. The solo parts are sung with a timbre and intensity that is very compelling. This is far from an immaculate interpretation - in fact I was expecting something rather more refined but what I enjoyed was the attack and vibrancy offered in perfection's place. Unlike the neglected Diversions the Violin Concerto has fared relatively well in the recording studio at least. I have not heard Tasmin Little's recent offering on Chandos and in fact James Ehnes' recording is in my current batch of discs awaiting review. Azizian - whose discography seems to include this as his only concerto disc (originally released on ClassicO with a rather fine version of the Walton - a very logical coupling) - is a very nimble and neat player fully up to the considerable technical challenges of this early work. Vänskä's accompaniment is unfussy, overall a very convincing version - another work which belies the fact that Britten's reputation is said to rely on his vocal and operatic works.
Disc 8 is the second shortest of the lot - clocking in at an abject 39:38. Again the choice of coupling is hard to fathom; Karajan's 1953 Frank Bridge Variations with the Philharmonia alongside the brief Charm of Lullabies song-cycle sung pleasantly and with appropriate simplicity by Pamela Bowden. Karajan's performance is good without offering anything in the way of revelatory insights - again the 1953 recording shows its age with an element of wiriness to the string tone. As before, this strikes me as a version which has been superseded and so has little more than curiosity value today.
This is not something that can be said of the work that completes the box on discs 9 and 10. Britten's only full-length ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, remains surprisingly little-known. Surprising because this is without doubt one of Britten's more colourful and emotionally unambiguous scores. It was around the time of its composition that Britten heard Gamelan and the first flush of discovery can be heard suffused throughout the score. Perhaps the work is not as melodically memorable as other Britten scores but it remains an exhilarating listen - especially so in this dynamically exciting Decca-sourced recording from 1957. Again the sound does not reach the heights of richness that the same team would achieve nearly two years later but it remains very fine indeed. Important to note that Britten sanctioned some minor cuts to fit the work into a 2 LP set. For an absolutely full version the only other option is the excellent performance from The London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen on Virgin/EMI; it’s part of the 37CD EMI set. Again, it is hard to ignore the primacy of this earlier recording.
So for the Serenade and Peter Grimes this set contains performances that would grace any collection. Add to that the very real quality, interest and rarity of the Nocturne, Diversions and The Prince of the Pagodas again in definitive versions plus a fine fiddle concerto and a challenging Ceremony of Carols and I can accept a couple of duffers and poor presentation at the offered price - there is much more gold than dross. On the other hand would it really be asking too much of the Documents team to show a little more intelligence in their handling of the material they have access to?
Much more gold than dross.
Britten discography & review index
Editor's note: The label name Documents varies from one location to another - it is also known as Membran and IntenseMedia.
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Serenade for Tenor, Horn and strings Op.31 [24:18]
Les Illuminations Op.18 [21:50]
Peter Pears (tenor), Dennis Brain (horn),
New Symphony Orchestra/Eugene Goossens
Recorded: 1953 (Serenade), 1959 (Les Illuminations)
Sinfonia da Requiem Op.20 [19:43]
Nocturne for Tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings Op.60 [26:24]
Symphony Orchestra of Danish State Radio (Sinfonia) and The London Symphony Orchestra (Nocturne)/Benjamin Britten
Recorded: 1953 (Sinfonia), 1959 (Nocturne)
CDs 3-4 [75:14 + 66:49]
Peter Grimes (complete)
Peter Pears (tenor) - Peter Grimes
Claire Watson (soprano) - Ellen Orford
James Pease (baritone) - Captain Balstrode
David Kelly (bass) - Hobson
Owen Brannigan (bass-baritone) - Swallow
Lauris Elms (mezzo) - Mrs Sedley
Jean Watson (contralto) - Auntie
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden/Benjamin Britten
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin D795
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra Op.34 [16:53]
Diversions for Piano (left hand) and Orchestra Op.21 [24:57]
Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum (Young Person's Guide), Julius Katchen (piano), London Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten (Diversions)
Recorded: 1953 (YPG), 1954 (Diversions)
A Ceremony of Carols Op.28 [21:29]
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.15 [31:30]
Elisbeth Bayer (Harp), Wiener Sängerknaben/ Anton Neyder
Sergej Azizian (violin) Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra/Osmo Vänska
Recorded: 1971 (Ceremony), 2002 (Concerto)
Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge Op.10 [27:04]
A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 [12:27]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan (Variations), Pamela Bowden (contralto), Peter Gellhorn (piano)
CDs 9-10 [65:21 + 35:08]
The Prince of the Pagodas Op.57 - ballet (slightly abridged)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden/Benjamin Britten
Recorded: 1957 - 2 discs