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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Orchestral Works
Track & Performance details below review
EMI CLASSICS 9781602 [8 CDs: 63.18 + 75.59 + 74.29 + 70.10 + 72.17 + 71.56 + 77.59 + 40.57]


 
This set contains all of the orchestral music that Britten published during his own lifetime, as well as some pieces that were posthumously published. It does not include all of these later discoveries – we do not have the Double Concerto or the Two portraits, nor any of the works that required editorial work to put them in a performable condition. Otherwise it is totally comprehensive, including orchestral sections from Peter Grimes and Gloriana which Britten himself extracted for concert performance. In fact it is an exact reissue of the first eight discs from the CD box of Britten (The Collector’s Edition) that EMI issued a couple of years ago, shorn of the vocal works and operatic selections that were contained in that collection.
 
During his lifetime Britten set down many of these pieces - by no means all of them - in recordings for Decca which he himself regarded as benchmarks by which later performances could be judged. All the readings here date from after the composer’s death but many of them bear the clear signs of the influence of Britten’s own readings – which is a good thing, after all.
 
The recording of the Sinfonia da Requiem gets this collection off to a rousing start. Libor Pešek is slower than Britten in the two outer movements with their air of lamentation, but he really lets rip in the central Dies irae, scorching along at a tremendous pace and ensuring that the deceleration at the end as the movement links into the final Requiem aeternam does not simply sound like the music running out of momentum - as it can. Pešek is equally convincing in the Sea interludes, where he includes the Passacaglia as an integral movement before the cracking final Storm, a procedure which works well. He is a match for Britten himself in his reading of the Young person’s guide to the orchestra, producing a sizzling account of the final fugue and milking the slow viola variation for all it is worth. The recording is rather less spotlit than Decca provided for Britten, but all the individual instruments come through clearly.
 
On the second disc - and at other points thereafter - EMI call on Sir Simon Rattle and his City of Birmingham forces, who deliver a whole raft of works which Britten didn’t record himself. These include the Scottish Ballad and Young Apollo with Peter Donohoe as an excellent soloist joined by Philip Fowke in the former, the haunting late suite on English folksongs A time there was …, and other rarities such as Canadian Carnival, An American Overture, Occasional Overture, Russian Funeral and The building of the house. Britten himself recorded the Diversions for piano (left hand) and orchestra with Julius Katchen, but Peter Donohoe is every bit a match for that performance even if he is less effervescent than Victoria Postnikova was in a 1978 Proms performance with Gennady Rozhdestvensky, which was briefly once available on a BBC Classics CD but has long vanished from the catalogues.
 
Leif Ove Andsnes is a rather unexpected choice as soloist in the Piano Concerto but he acquits himself well in the music, even if he pales beside Sviatoslav Richter in Britten’s own recording. On the other hand Ida Haendel in the Violin Concerto quite eclipses Mark Lubotsky in Britten’s performance, possessing all the incredible amount of technical bravura required to cope with some impossibly difficult writing – and then some more to spare. We are not given here any of the later concerto movements which Britten wrote in his younger years – the Double Concerto for violin and viola already mentioned, or the Clarinet Concerto commissioned by Benny Goodman but never completed – but then Britten himself would not have regarded them as suitable candidates for inclusion in a collected edition of his orchestral music. The final movement of the Clarinet Concerto as edited by Colin Matthews is a real ‘find’.
 
The disc of music for string orchestra conducted by Iona Brown with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra is an absolute stunner. Her reading of the Simple Symphony lacks the sheer visceral punch of Britten’s own recording, which was assisted by the resonant acoustic of the Snape Maltings, but it yields nothing to the composer’s interpretation in terms of sheer panache and her Bridge Variations are similarly inspired. She cannot do much with the rather mechanical Prelude and Fugue, but she brings out all the heartache of the underestimated Lachrymae with Lars Anders Tomter a heartfelt soloist.
 
Takuo Yuasa is less convincing in the suite which Britten extracted from his opera Gloriana when it appeared that the work was unlikely to find favour or indeed further performances following its disastrous première. The main problem arises in the Lute song, given here with the original tenor part assigned to Jonathan Small on oboe - as suggested by the composer. I recently heard a broadcast of a performance that Britten himself gave of the suite on German radio in the 1950s, where he recruited Peter Pears (inevitably) to sing the song, as setting of some pretty dismal words by the historical Earl of Essex. In the performance here the music is allowed little time to breathe, and there is no sense of the flexibility that a voice can bring to the beautiful melodic line. Elsewhere Yuasa is fine, and brings out all the originality of Britten’s scoring in The tournament and Gloriana moritur.
 
Steven Isserlis and Richard Hickox give a splendid account of the Cello Symphony, although they lack the sheer panache that Rostropovich brought to his recording with Britten; but the quality of the recorded sound is vastly superior to the Decca, which now begins to sound a bit pallid by comparison. This disc is rounded out by another rarity, Men of Goodwill, a set of variations on a Christmas carol dispatched in sparkling form by Sir Neville Marriner with his Minnesota players.
 
The Sinfonietta is also given a sparkling performance by Daniel Harding conducting the Britten Sinfonia. The work was originally scored for a small group of ten chamber players, but it sounds to me as though Harding uses multiple strings at various points in the score – the booklet notes are silent on this point – and this expansion of the scoring - if such it is - works well. The Rossini suites Matinées musicales and Soirées musicales are given boisterous readings under Sir Alexander Gibson, but the inclusion on this disc of the original version of the latter under the title Rossini Suite seems a dubious addition to the set; it is really a work for a chamber ensemble of amere five players with choral contributions and not an orchestral piece at all. In fact it is one of the series of film scores which Britten wrote in the 1930s and the work is marginally better known under the title of the film it was intended to accompany, The Tocher.
 
The final two discs in this collection enshrine Knussen’s The Prince of the Pagodas, and this is a real winner. Britten’s own recording was quite heavily abridged to fit onto four LP sides, with over forty cuts including several complete numbers. There has subsequently been a DVD release of the ballet in a performance from Covent Garden, but Knussen’s recording remains the only complete version of the score available on CD. As such it is an inevitable constituent of any collection of Britten’s music, and would remain so – superbly played and recorded – even if there were any competition. It is not perhaps Britten’s greatest score, but it prefigures many of the ideas that were to find fruit in his music of the 1960s (not least the church parables) and it certainly deserves to be heard complete.
 
As a whole this collection this is a valuable asset in its own right, containing as it does readings of many pieces that are otherwise unobtainable. And there are no duds and some real winners among these performances, which bid fair to rival Britten’s own survey for Decca. The booklet notes by Paul Kildea appear to be new - the original EMI Britten box contained no booklet notes at all - but in less than four pages they clearly cannot say all that needs to be said about this music. Britten aficionados who have not already purchased the original boxed set will need to have this one.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Track & Performance details
CD 1

Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20 [21.29]
Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, Op.33 [24.16]
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34 [17.43]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pešek
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 11-12 January 1989
CD 2
Canadian Carnival, Op.19 [14.02]1
Diversions for piano (left hand) and orchestra, Op.21 [24.04]2
Scottish Ballad, Op.26 [15.14]3
An American Overture, Op.27 [10.26]4
Occasional Overture, Op.38 [7.11]5
The Building of the House, Op.79 [5.02]6
Peter Donohoe23 and Philip Fowke3 (pianos)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus6/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. Cheltenham Town Hall, 22-24 April 1984 1345: Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre, 15-17 July 1990 26
CD 3
Piano Concerto, Op.13 [35.30]
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 21-23 October 1997
Violin Concerto, Op.15 [31.03]
Ida Haendel (violin); Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Berglund
rec. Guildhall, Southampton, 12-13 June 1977
Young Apollo, Op.16 [7.37]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. Cheltenham Town Hall, 22-23 April 1984
CD 4
Simple Symphony, Op.4 [17.51]
Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10 [25.06]
Prelude and Fugue, Op.29 [8.55]
Lachrymae, Op.48a [16.20]7
Lars Anders Tomter (viola);7
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra/Iona Brown
rec. Uranienborg Church, Oslo, November 1991
CD 5
Symphonic Suite from Gloriana, Op.53a [26.10]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 14-15 November 1994
Cello Symphony, Op.68 [37.37]
Steven Isserlis (cello)
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. Studio No 1, Abbey Road, London, 12-14 March 1987
Men of Goodwill (1947) [8.30]
Minnesota Orchestra/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, 16-17 May 1983
CD 6
Sinfonietta, Op.1 [14.40]
Britten Sinfonia/Daniel Harding
rec. Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London, 26-31 August 1997
Russian Funeral (1936) [5.36]8
Suite on English folk tunes A time there was…, Op.90 [15.40]9
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre, 23-24 May 1984:8 Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 1 December 1994 9
Soirées musicales, Op.9 [10.52]
Matinées musicales, Op.24 [15.35]
English Chamber Orchestra/Sir Alexander Gibson
rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London, 10 March 1982
Rossini Suite (1935) [9.35]
Boys of the Choir of Paisley Abbey
members of Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
rec. Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 9-10 May 1988
CDs 7-8
The Prince of the Pagodas, Op.57 [120.56]
London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen
rec. St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, 23-29 May 1989


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