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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Chamber and instrumental works
Track listing at end of review
EMI CLASSICS 0151492 [6 CDs: 393:53]

This is the second compilation to be drawn by EMI from their bumper ‘Britten Collector’s Edition’ issued a few years ago and reviewed then for this site by Rob Barnett. It is very logically presented with the works for string ensemble (trio, quartet and quintet) given in chronological order on the first three CDs; the three cello suites on the fourth; the piano works on the fifth; and miscellaneous chamber works on the sixth and final disc.
Britten seems to have divided his large output of music into three categories. Firstly there were the major works to which he assigned opus numbers (until the closing years of his life) and which he clearly intended to form part of his musical testament. Then there were smaller occasional works, to which he did not assign opus numbers but which he published and clearly considered to be a secondary archive of music. Finally there was a vast reserve of juvenilia which he generally did not publish - with a few exceptions such as the song cycle Tit for tat - but which were preserved in the Britten archive at Aldeburgh. After the death of Peter Pears many of the works in this category were published posthumously, and this caused adverse comment at the time from some critics - notably Byron Adams in the September 1993 edition of Notes - who regarded the issue of these ‘musical indiscretions’ as ‘problematical’. However, provided that we recognise that Britten himself chose not to release these works for performance during his lifetime, they nevertheless have a considerable value in showing his musical development during his precocious teenage years. Although the earlier EMI box of orchestral music by and large eschewed the early scores this compendium includes many of them, rightly so in the context of such an archival collection. It should however be pointed out that very nearly half of what we have here falls into the category of works that Britten himself did not consider worthy of publication during his lifetime.
This is the case with all the works on the first CD, beginning with the Romance for string quartet written when the composer was just sixteen. It shows Britten at the beginning of his career already looking to the Continent for compositional models, although at this stage his viewpoint seems to have extended little beyond Ravel; there’s an almost literal note-for-note quotation from the latter’s Introduction and Allegro at one point. The Quartettino from a year later shows a more adventurous spirit with the influence of Frank Bridge apparent as well as a firm acquaintance with the scores of Alban Berg, with whom Britten wished to study at one time. The Elegy for solo viola and the unnumbered String Quartet in D show the composer consolidating his technique, as does the Phantasy for string quintet. It is important to remember that all these works were written by the composer before the age of twenty. No matter: they remain interesting pieces to hear, and Britten’s mature voice is occasionally in evidence, even though one can understand why he did not think them worthy of later publication or performance.
It is not until the beginning of the second CD that we encounter a work that he did consider worthy, in the shape of the Phantasy for oboe and string trio which he published as a successor to his Op.1 Sinfonietta - included in the first of these EMI boxes. For some reason the CD booklet does not credit the solo oboist in this work; Archiv Music informs us that it is Douglas Boyd, whose beautiful playing does not deserve such anonymity. At the time of their original issue these discs were invaluable for giving us a complete conspectus of all of Britten’s works for the medium of string quartet. Since then Naxos have entered the fray with a cycle from the Maggini Quartet which is even more extensive, including as they do the string quartet version of the Simple Symphony. It must also be said that the Magginis find more passion in their performances of the three mature quartets than the Endellions do here. Incidentally one of the themes in the Three Divertimenti was used again by Britten in his Les illuminations, surely an indication that he did not imagine that the earlier work would ever be resurrected and performed.
Truls Mørk’s traversal of the three Britten Cello Suites comes into direct competition with the recordings by Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom the works were originally written. Rostropovich inexplicably never recorded the Third Suite. The sheer difficulties of playing this music are incredible, but Mørk never sounds fazed by the demands for a single second. He also achieves a real sense of involvement with the music, aided by the beautiful resonance of the church acoustic. Music for unaccompanied string instruments can often sound somewhat forbidding, the technical problems obtruding between the performer and the listener, but there is never a suspicion of this here. This disc continues to be available separately, and rightly so; even if one is not tempted by this box as a whole, Mørk’s Suites must be among the best of the two dozen recordings currently in the catalogue.
The disc containing the works for piano and piano duet is particularly valuable, since many of these pieces have never been recorded elsewhere; but there is a very large proportion of juvenilia here - including three waltzes written by Britten at the age of twelve and entitled in his own spelling Three Walztes - although he did revisit and revise the pieces in 1969. The order of the items on the disc makes for a satisfying sequence, but it might have been better in an archival collection such as this to present the works in chronological order of composition. The rarely heard Night Piece is a real find, and makes one regret that Britten in his mature years after the Second World War never wrote anything else for his own instrument. The booklet notes tell us nothing about the Sonatina Romantica but apparently Britten actually withdrew the score after its completion in 1940. The first two movements here are the only sections published after his death by the Britten Estate. In context this is perhaps more controversial - not an early piece that Britten did not consider worthy of performance, but a mature piece that he positively decided should not be performed. However, given the two movements here one is at a loss to understand why. Perhaps there was something wrong with the rest of the work which Britten found unsatisfactory? The only pieces on this disc which are at all well known are the Mazurka elegiaca and Introduction and Rondo alla burlesca, for some obscure reason presented here in the reverse of the usual and numbered order. These two pieces have been recorded a number of times since Britten himself played them with Clifford Curzon in 1944; Hough and O’Hara do them proud, as one would expect, although one is surprised to note that the barn-storming reading by John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas which I recall from the 1970s seems to be missing from the current catalogue. It did appear as part of Ogdon’s 70th Anniversary Edition, but has now vanished again.
The final disc combines four pieces from Britten’s primary catalogue which do not fit into the categories of the previous discs. The early Suite for violin and piano is quite a rarity and there are only a couple of rival recordings in the catalogue; Barantschik and Adey play it with ease and indeed elegance particularly in the charming Lullaby. That said, this work by the teenage Britten is interesting in parts rather than as a whole. The Cello Sonata on the other hand is a towering masterpiece, but unfortunately any recording of the work must fall under the shadow of the equally towering performance by Rostropovich with Britten himself at the piano. After that anything else must inevitably be somewhat of a let-down, but Moray Welsh and John Lenehan do well and certainly need not fear any but the most exalted comparisons. The Six Metamorphoses are charmingly piquant pieces, but the Nocturnal is a superb work written for Julian Bream and played by him here with all the fervour of creation. Did it really take seven days to record this performance, or are the recording dates given those for sessions covering a whole recital? It hardly matters in the face of involvement such as this, which brings the whole collection to a supremely satisfying conclusion.
There are a few works missing from this box - quite apart from miscellaneous juvenilia which continue to emerge from Britten’s bottom drawer at regular intervals. The Suite for harp is missing, as is the organ Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria; and so are the Temporal Variations for oboe and piano. All right, the latter work is one of the posthumous publications which required editing by Colin Matthews to put it into a performable condition; but it is a good piece, and has established itself in the recorded repertory with nearly a dozen recordings currently available. Britten however did regard his sole organ piece as worthy of publication during his lifetime; and even more serious is the omission of the Suite for harp which Britten wrote for Osian Ellis and which he clearly regarded as a major work since he designated it his Op.83. Its absence from this more than generous collection is much to be regretted.
Nevertheless this is a valuable box, containing as it does a number of items not available elsewhere. Britten’s massive achievements in the field of opera, vocal and orchestral music have tended to overshadow his chamber music, but there are some real masterpieces amongst the works here.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

Briten discography and review index


CDs 1-3 [60.51 + 53.32 + 55.20]
Rhapsody for string quartet (1929) [7.06]
Quartettino (1930) [15.30] 
Elegy for solo viola (1930) [7.25]
String Quartet in D (1931) [19.47]
Phantasy in F minor for string quintet (1932) [10.59]*
Phantasy for oboe and string trio, Op.2 (1932) [13.17]**
Three Divertimenti for string quartet (1936) [9.51]
Alla marcia for string quartet (1936) [3.23]
String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op.25 (1941) [26.57]
String Quartet No. 2 in C, Op.36 (1945) [29.27]
String Quartet No. 3, Op.94 (1975) [23.11]
Endellion String Quartet with *Nicholas Logie (viola), Douglas Boyd (oboe)**
rec. Rosslyn Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead and St Michael’s, Highgate, London, 26-28 January, 17-19 March and 5-7 May 1986
CD 4 [73.05]
Cello Suite No. 1 in G, Op.72 (1964) [25.21]
Cello Suite No. 2 in D, Op.80 (1967) [23.53]
Cello Suite No. 3, Op.87 (1971) [23.28]
Truls Mørk (cello)
rec. Ris Church, Oslo, 11-16 October 1998 and 6 June 2000
CD 5 [79.54]
Holiday Diary, Op.5 [16.59]
Three character pieces (1930) [7.04]
Night piece (Notturno) (1963) [5.22]
Two movements from Sonatina romantica (1940) [7.31]
Twelve Variations on a theme (1931) [8.40]
Five Waltzes (1925) [10.55]
Two Lullabies (1936) [5.41]*
Mazurka elegiaca, Op.23/2 (1941) [8.21]*
Introduction and Rondo alla burlesca, Op.23/1 (1940) [9.05]*
Stephen Hough with *Ronan O’Hara (pianos)
rec. Studio 7, BBC Manchester, June 1990
CD 6 [71.11]
Suite for violin and piano, Op.6 (1935) [15.56]
Alexander Barantschik (violin), John Adey (piano)
rec. Conway Hall, London, 14 March 1994
Cello Sonata in C, Op.65 (1961) [22.13]
Moray Welsh (cello), John Lenehan (piano)
rec. Conway Hall, London, 1 March 1994
Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op.49 (1951) [14.14]
Roy Carter (oboe)
rec. All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London, 4-5 May 1995
Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op.70 (1963) [18.31]
Julian Bream (guitar)
rec. Forde Abbey, Dorset, 14-19 September and 5-6 October 1992