Britten 100 on NMC - Retrospect and Horizon - A survey of four NMC CDs with
Britten as their subject
by Rob Barnett
NMC has already worked invaluably for the Britten
inheritance: to date, four superbly prepared and presented discs. Each is addressed
here. In addition, in November this centenary year (2013) there will be a CD
premiering his music for four works for stage and broadcast: NMC D190. It will
go under the title: Britain to America and An American In Britain. Performed
by the Hallé and Mark Elder, this will allow us to hear the music for
two stage/radio productions with W.H. Auden: The Ascent of F6 and On
The label's Britten contribution comes as no surprise when we remember that
NMC's founder and Executive Producer is the composer Colin Matthews who worked
with Britten in the 1970s. He is also Chairman of the Britten Estate and Musical
Director of the Britten-Pears Foundation. Britten is fortunate in that connection
as he is also in the support of his publisher and in two momentous sets, one
just issued (Decca)
and the other (EMI)
that has been available since 2009. There will be more.
In summary the four NMC discs are:
Britten on Film Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Brabbins NMC
Archive Britten: historical recordings from 1941: Les Illuminations
• Sinfonia da Requiem • Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo NMC D030
Unknown Britten: Les Illuminations etc Northern Sinfonia/Zehetmair
Four British Film Scores including Love From a Stranger
BBC Symphony Orchestra/van Steen. NMC D073
We will take each of these in turn:
Britten on Film NMC D112
To my knowledge this is the first collection of film music written by Britten
for 1930s information films.
In fact his output for the screen is extensive and includes:-
Conquering Space (1935)
The King's Stamp (1935)
Banking for the Millions (1935)
Coal Face (1936)
Night Mail (1936)
Message from Geneva (1936)
Men of the Alps (also including music by Rossini arranged by Britten and Walter
Love from a Stranger - Trafalgar Films (1937) - his sole feature film score.
The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937)
The Line to the Tschierva Hut (1937)
Calendar of the Year (1937)
Around the Village Green (1937)
The Way to the Sea (1937)
The Tocher - silhouette film (1938)
Four Barriers (1938)
How the Dial Works (1938)
Many a Pickle (1938)
God's Chillun (1939)
HPO or the 6d Telegram (1939)
Advance Democracy (1939)
Instruments of the Orchestra (1946)
There is clearly scope for at least another couple of CDs but the present sumptuous
and generous selection - the fruit of a revival project funded by the Britten
Estate - will appease most appetites for the time being.
No expense was spared and what we have here is a de luxe carrier for
a desperately neglected genre. The comprehensive booklet includes photographs
and film stills alongside all the spoken and sung words.
The scores and performing materials had to be specially reconstructed from manuscripts
and soundtracks held at the Britten-Pears Library by composers Joseph Phibbs
and Lloyd Moore under the supervision of Colin Matthews.
The disc includes a new performing edition of The Way to the Sea, the
première recording of Coal Face and the first recording of the
complete music to Night Mail.
Night Mail with Simon Russell Beale's suitably hushed narration catches
the mystical tension and excitement with a virtuoso performance. For all that
these are Auden's words the style is very much pattering alliterative Masefield.
The music is cleanly orchestrated - less is more. The small ensemble manages
to sound sumptuous and the concentrated sprint and pause never spills over into
a lack of control. It's superbly done.
The Tocher (Rossini Suite) is quite something else. It's a slinky and
light as a feather arrangement of Rossini. These five episodes later found their
way into the Soirees Musicales but for full orchestra.
The King's Stamp is also tense and this time on occasions quite dissonant.
It's clever and sounds a little like Prokofiev or even 1920s Bliss from time
to time - I am thinking of the latter’s Conversations. It also
reminded me of two other early scores recently revived on CD: Weill's Zaubernacht
and Frank Martin's Cendrillon. The woodwind carry this score shoulder
Negroes was a film project with the abolition of the slave trade as its
subject. Here the instrumental ensemble is supplemented with a sung documentary-style
narration from soloists and choir. What we hear is telling, minimalist, insidious
and confiding. The music is melodic, wistful and rumba plays its part - as in
tr. 23. It's all entertaining and attractive notwithstanding the subject matter.
Beale returns for the narration and ensemble piece, The Way to the Sea.
This was funded by Southern Railway and was intended to encourage the south
coast commuter and day out market - London to the south coast. It recounts,
in succinct dimension, the history of that area and especially its relationship
with the sea. The music freely adopts the pastiche style of the times it portrays,
just as Bloch did in his America. Here Britten adopts a simpler style
than that found in the helter-skelter tongue-twisting of Night Mail.
Telegrams includes a vibrant children's choir. The score is bright-eyed
Peace of Britain was a pacifist tract. The music of the film is quite
complicated and wheezily melodic, as also is that for Men Behind the Meters
- a film about gas fitters and appliances. It includes a merry-go-round version
of I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls.
Coal Face had a coal-mining workplace rights agenda although the packaging
is documentary rather than obviously sloganised. It is for narrator, instrumental
ensemble and choir. The musicians contribute sparely to a machine age referenced
score that makes its points tellingly.
The very short song When you're feeling like expressing your affection
is a light-hearted piece of cabaret-style promotion for the use of the telephone.
It's nicely despatched by Carewe and Wilson.
Some of the film music has been recorded before. I can think of Irish Reel
from Village Harvest: Charles Brill Orch. Decca K874 and reissued on
Pearl. YPG has been recorded many times - initially in 1946 by the Liverpool
Philharmonic conducted by Malcolm Sargent: HMV DX1307-8 and DXS1309.
A fascinating perspective on a little known aspect of Britten’s musical
Archive Britten : recordings from 1941: Les Illuminations •
Sinfonia da Requiem • Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo NMC D030
These three works are presented in transcriptions from 1941 off-air 78s. As
the notes explain, the originals are from Britten's own collection and appear
to have been much played. TLC has been applied and we are assured that
what we hear is the best that modern technology can derive from these sources.
Les Illuminations emerges as a lovely and impassioned work in the hands
of a very young Peter Pears. It's an impression I have not taken before. The
CBS Symphony Orchestra is conducted by the composer and they play their hearts
out for him. Clearly these were intoxicatingly exciting times. This is
well worth hearing for Brittenites and devotees of the singing voice. Pears
is in supple, fruity voice. It’s such a contrast with the later recordings
which give us a voice in braying shreds even if the artistic intelligence was
always in place. The signal sounds good with only the occasional surface bristle
and distortion at climaxes remaining. The performance, given on 18 May 1941,
was the American première of the work.
Barbirolli's Sinfonia da Requiem captures, arguably, an even more important
occasion for what we have here is the second performance of the work, broadcast
from Carnegie Hall on 31 March 1941, the day after Barbirolli and the New York
Philharmonic had given the world première. The performance has to endure
the occasional scuff and cough but otherwise emerges in good heart and with
much more detail registering than I had expected. The mind soon filters much
of the heard detritus and damage wrought by the passage of time and repeated
playing of the originals. It is however a work that shines when heard in modern
sound. This is an impressive document of the Sinfonia but very much for
the Britten specialist.
The recording of the Seven Sonnets was made, probably in 1941, in a private
concert hall rather than off-air; the work did not receive its official première
until September 1942. Pears sounds more strained than in the Les Illuminations
where he is in magnificent voice. Here we encounter strain and hardness.
Good notes and sung words reproduced in the booklet alongside translations into
Les Illuminations is extraordinary and should be more widely heard but
generally, for all the revelations encountered here, this is for the devoted
Unknown Britten : Les Illuminations etc
Northern Sinfonia/Zehetmair NMC D140
Sandrine Piau and the Northern Sinfonia deliver an athletic, proclamatory, tongue-twisting,
rhetorical and calming-stilly Les Illuminations. I noted, amongst much
else, some alert and really pleasing dialogue and stereo separation from the
strings. The great coup is the inclusion of three discarded songs in orchestrations
by Colin Matthews. In this context the first additional song, Phrase,fits
the ambience and style of the main work. The other two feel too lush although
they are intrinsically deeply attractive contributions to the French mélodie
The Rondo Concertante has been pieced together by Colin Matthews. It
reminds me from time to time, especially when display is to the fore, of Diversions
- a much under-esteemed piece. It is often dazzling and rhythmic if not particularly
emotional. The exception comes in the second movement which trails off into
indecisive silence. It is after all the work of a first year student at college
(RCM). It is a privilege to be able to hear this.
The little In Memoriam is a bubbly brevity - showy but not steely. Those
searing strings reminded me of Peter Racine Fricker. Horn players should look
this over. It would fit well with a collection of twentieth century horn concertos
matched with Vinter’s Hunter's Moon.
Also from the same year as the Rondo Concertante comes the Fragment
for strings. Its writing has presentiments of his later distinctive lithe and
fat-free style (Serenade and Les Illuminations) as well as recalling
that of Lennox Berkeley whose string writing may have been an influence on or
was influenced by Britten. Quite apart from the collaboration with Britten over
Mont Juic Berkeley also made a contribution to the French mélodie
genre (see above in connection with Les Illuminations).
As with the Rondo Concertante Rolf Hind is the pianist for the incomplete
1965 Variations for solo piano. On this evidence it would have been a
work of concentration and seriousness. The severe language is tough and uningratiating.
It relaxes only for what is here presented as the final hurly-burly rushed variation
- each is separately banded.
The three movements for an early 1940s Clarinet Concerto tingle with
endearing and impressive freshness; such a pity it was never completed. However
these three movements are well worth hearing and performing. At times it is
reminiscent of Malcolm Arnold - not a parallel I would have expected to draw.
Fascinating and not just as a novelty.
All the words and translations are there together with full supportive notes
to complement a generous and fascinating selection of works that invaluably
enriches all the new Britten recording activity this year (2013).
See also review by
Four British Film Scores including Love From a Stranger.
BBC Symphony Orchestra/van Steen. NMC D073
Among this quartet of CDs this is the only one to mix in composers other than
Britten. Britten's score for Trafalgar Films’ feature of the Agatha
Christie thriller Love from a Stranger (1937) is packed with lapidary
activity. The mood varies between jolly caper, mysterious icy romance and breathy
anticipation. It never sits heavily on the ear. This is not film noir
music. Lightness of atmosphere over-drapes everything. It runs about 10 minutes
in six separately tracked segments and represents Britten's only score for a
full length cinema feature.
Composers such as Benjamin Frankel dropped their concert hall credentials and
wrote accessible film scores. Roberto Gerhard was clearly having none
of that. His music for Lindsay Anderson's 1963 drama This Sporting Life
is tough and completely representative of his mainstream. The music heard across
eight movements is typically protesting, intense, whooping, sinister, emotionally
chilly, spiky and joylessly drained. It's one of only two such film scores by
I would not have expected Lutyens to have had it in her to relax from
the gritty atonal intensity, violence and desolation that was her stock in trade.
She may have had reservations about her natural proclivities being applied to
this Hammer horror film but the music works well and the viewing public will
subconsciously have found it a haunting and dramatic fit for the goings-on on-screen..
We end the disc with a return to tonality. We hear from a composer whose concert
hall music was for many years more linked to that of his teacher Lutyens than
to the tonal romantics such as Alwyn and RVW. The late Richard Rodney Bennett
wrote some fifty scores for film and TV. These include famous music for Murder
on the Orient Express, Far From the Madding Crowd and Nicholas
and Alexandra (Chandos - review).
Here is an eight-track suite from the music he wrote for Alan Bridges’
1982 film of The Return of the Soldier. While not exactly lush it is
melodic, haunting, mistily dreamy and subtle in a way related to but not identical
with the seethingly detailed and dynamic Britten score.
The recording and, so far as one can tell, the performances are completely fluent.
See also review by Hubert
Fuller content details
Britten on Film
Night Mail (first complete recording) (1936) [5:50]; The Tocher (Rossini Suite)
(1938) [9:32]; The King's Stamp (1935) [14:07]; Negroes (1939) [13:03]; The
Way to The Sea (1937) [15:29]; Telegrams (1939) [2:30]; Peace of Britain (1936)
[1:30]; Men Behind The Meters (1936) [3:11]; Coal Face (first recording) (1936)
[11:47]; When you're feeling like expressing your affection [0:53]
Simon Russell Beale (narrator); Mary Carewe (soprano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; Choir of King Edward's School, Birmingham
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 11-12 March 2006, CBSO Centre, Birmingham. DDD
NMC D112 [78:55]
Les Illuminations [22:35]: date: 18 May 1941 venue: ISCM Festival, New York
the American premiere with Peter Pears, CBS Symphony Orchestra/Britten.
Sinfonia da Requiem [22:53]: date: 31 March 1941
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/John Barbirolli
Seven Sonnets [15:35]: date: 1941
Benjamin Britten • Peter Pears
NMC D030 [61:03]
Les Illuminations, Op. 18 (1939) [23:02]
BRITTEN orch. Colin MATTHEWS (b.1946) Les Illuminations: three additional songs:
Phrase (c.1939) [0:52]; Aube (1939) [4:59]; A une raison (c.1939) [2:36]
BRITTEN realized MATTHEWS Rondo Concertante (1930) [14:58]
In memoriam Dennis Brain (c.1958) [3:53]
BRITTEN Untitled Fragment (1930) [2:44]
Variations (1965) [6:26]
BRITTEN realized MATTHEWS Movements for a Clarinet Concerto (c.1942) [17:50]
Sandrine Piau (soprano); Rolf Hind (piano), Michael Collins (clarinet), Michael
Thompson, Richard Watkins, Peter Francomb, Chris Griffiths (horns)
Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair; rec. Hall One, The Sage, Gateshead 22-23
May 2008, 14-15 January 2009, DDD. Booklet includes French sung texts and an
NMC D140 [78:12]
Love From A Stranger - Four British Film Scores:
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976) Love from a Stranger (1937, ed. Colin
Roberto GERHARD (1896 - 1970) This Sporting Life (1963, ed. David Matthews)
Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906 - 1983) The Skull (1965, ed. Bayan Northcott)
Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1936) The Return of the Soldier (1982)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jac van Steen
Recorded: Studio 1, BBC, Maida Vale, London, 2 March 1999 (Britten) and October
2002 (last track of Bennett, recorded November 2003, conductor Martyn Brabbins)
NMC D 073 [63:22]