Feature Review – Britten The Complete Works [Decca]

Written by: Ben Hogwood


The Complete Works

Decca 478 5364 (65 CDs and 1 DVD)

Includes all works with opus numbers and all works commercially recorded to date. Includes folksongs, excludes Purcell realisations and Hindmarsh’s arrangements of incidental music to King Arthur and World of the Spirit.

No composer has enjoyed such a lasting and profitable relationship with a record company as Benjamin Britten did with Decca. Largely working in partnership with producer John Culshaw, Britten committed a huge amount of his own music to disc, conducting definitive first recordings of almost all his major works, from A Ceremony of Carols in 1953 through to supervising Death in Venice in 1974. Along the way he covered the vast majority of his published work for the stage, voices and instruments.

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

Since Britten’s death in 1976 a good deal more of his music – mostly juvenilia – has come to light, under the watchful eye and sensitive editing of Colin Matthews and the Britten-Pears Foundation. Because of this, Decca’s stronghold on the composer’s complete output has relented in the last three decades, a time in which a new generation of Britten interpreters have established themselves, recorded in the digital sound unavailable to the composer.

For this box, commemorating the centenary of Britten’s birth on 22 November 1913, Decca has done its utmost to assemble every single morsel of his output, applying the criteria above to amass a thorough catalogue of over 250 works, from the early song Beware!, written when Britten was eight years old, to Colin Matthews’s completion of Praise We Great Men, on which the composer was working when he died. To achieve this goal Decca has agreed the licensing of recordings from eighteen other record companies; an unprecedented project to ensure that the gaps are filled. For these ‘imports’, it has stuck as closely as possible to the composer’s performing circle where alternatives are available. Steuart Bedford, who worked closely with Britten in his later years, conducts Christ’s Nativity and Johnson Over Jordan, further to the Decca recordings already available, Death in Venice and Britten’s editing of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.

Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten after a concert 1 November 1964. Photograph: Mikhail Ozerskiy

The highly attractive box is divided into four sections – “The Operas”, “Stage and Screen”, “Voices” and “Instruments”. The works therein are presented chronologically, more or less. Decca has clearly combed the Britten-Pears Foundation’s “Britten Thematic Catalogue”, picking up such gems as the brief but winsome song, May, sung by the Finchley Children’s Music Group and licensed from Naxos. An illustration of how far Decca has gone can be found in the inclusion of the one-act, 27-minute ballet Plymouth Town (1931), sourced from a BBC Music Magazine cover disc with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Grant Llewellyn.

Many of the performances are, crucially, given by the people for whom the works were written, giving an unparalleled insight into Britten’s music. Furthermore, the composer, who continues to be underrated as a superb pianist, can be found alongside Peter Pears in the song cycles, Mstislav Rostropovich in the Cello Sonata and the Choir of Downside School in Friday Afternoons, to give just a few examples.

With such a wide variety of performing media, listening to the music chronologically can be extremely rewarding. It highlights Britten’s rare facility for diverse composition and his exacting standards for publication, for even the recently discovered works have much to commend them. His economical methods mean that few of those pieces outstay their welcome. One that is perhaps too long, Plymouth Town, is nonetheless a weighty score describing a young man’s misadventures while on shore leave, perhaps the first instance of what many regard as the ‘loss of innocence’ theme running through Britten’s stage-works.

Peter Pears as General Wingrave (Owen Wingrave)

These are inevitably the highlights of Britten’s output as a composer. Billy Budd, Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice are all included in their original and definitive recordings, unremitting in their intensity. Although a lot of the vocal music was written for Britten’s partner Peter Pears, who features heavily, there is still considerable assortment in the context in which his voice is placed, from Pears’s creepy appearance as Quint in The Turn of the Screw to his portrayal of Saint Nicolas, one of the few recordings of the set whose sound betrays its age. Such diversity is a welcome reminder of the tenor’s versatility.

Many delights can be found in the shorter works that have not so far received the coverage of those behemoths. The film music is particularly revealing, Britten learning his craft with very restricted forces and durations, but cultivating music of great economy and descriptive power in scores for Coal Face, The King’s Stamp and Night Mail. The five Flower Songs are delightfully done by The Elizabethan Singers and Louis Halsey while in the 1959 recording of the Missa Brevis the Choir of St John’s College Cambridge is in terrific form. There are ‘outtakes’, too, in the form of songs intended for inclusion in the larger cycles – rejected, but still highly attractive in the case of ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’ (originally destined for Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings), and three intended for Winter Words) and several powerful Auden settings written with a second volume of On This Island in mind.

Steuart Bedford. Photograph: Paul Mitchell

The Company of Heaven is also a powerful utterance, featuring the first music Britten wrote for Pears in the aria ‘A Thousand, Thousand Gleaming Fires’ – it receives the dramatic performance it deserves from Philip Brunelle and his forces. The music may be slightly derivative of Symphony of Psalms-era Stravinsky, but it is tremendously vivid and exciting. Brunelle also presides over the underrated Paul Bunyan, an effervescent performance that reveals Britten’s first large-scale stage-work to have an abundance of melody and charm, the gentle giant himself played by James Lawless.

“Instruments”, apart from the expected String Quartets and Cello Suites, includes the orchestral and chamber works over 13 CDs, with a number of treasures on the side that include Simon Rattle’s enjoyable early-Britten recordings. There is also the perky Alpine Suite for recorder quartet (six movements in eight minutes!) and the dreamy Reflection for viola and piano, beautifully played by Nobuko Imai and Roland Pöntinen in a recording licensed from BIS. Imai also plays the more personal Elegy for solo viola. The winsome Holiday Diary, an effervescent suite and one of Britten’s few for solo piano, is most likeable in Stephen Hough’s account. The juvenilia astounds in its proficiency for one so young. The youthful String Quartet in F, played by the Utrecht String Quartet, has strong hints of Dvořák, while the early Miniature Suite is also charming, available for the first time on CD. The earliest work here, the song Beware!, is strangely enchanting and bears the influence of Schubert.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Photograph: Harald Hoffmann/DG

The sound quality of these recordings has largely held up remarkably. The recording of Peter Grimes may be 55 years old, but one can still practically feel the spray during the storm! The mono recordings have also stood the test of time, and Pears’s appearance as Quint in The Turn of the Screw, manipulated by way of some judicious microphone placement, is extremely chilling. The Folksongs are largely in their peerless versions by the composer and his partner, though it is lovely to hear Sophie Wyss singing three of the French ones that were effectively a ‘thank you’ from the composer for her work. Les illuminations, of which she gave the premiere, is not presented here in a version for soprano; rather it’s Pears and the English Chamber Orchestra.

Perhaps inevitably there are thoughts of what might be missing. Decca has opted not to include the Purcell realisations, primarily because Pears and Britten did not record them but also because they are not fully from Britten’s pen. This is a shame, for they were a key element in the development of much of Britten’s mature writing for voices. Also missing are the incidental music for King Arthur and The World of the Spirit, both completions by Paul Hindmarsh with the blessing of the Britten-Pears Foundation – an omission made rather more curious with the inclusion of Hindmarsh’s edition of Johnson Over Jordan, another of Britten’s numerous neglected scores of incidental music. The music for Ronald Duncan’s play Stratton is also missing, the only version a scratchy 1949 recording on Pearl that is out of circulation – and which provides the only evidence of the work, whose score is lost. The Gloriana Suite, a concert arrangement from the opera with its own separate opus number, 53a, has also been left out.

In collaborative works such as Mont Juic (with Lennox Berkeley, published as Berkeley’s Opus 9 and Britten’s Opus 12) and the Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (with five other composers) only the Britten portions are included, which is ludicrous and 90-second Elizabethan variation is a bleeding chunk that was never intended to be heard on its own. Britten’s attractive score The Prince of the Pagodas, his only full length ballet, is heard here in a version containing cuts sanctioned by the composer – anyone after a complete account is directed to Oliver Knussen’s colourful version with the London Sinfonietta. Britten’s arrangements of Mahler (What the Wild Flowers Tell Me) and songs of Schubert (Die forelle) and Schumann (Frühlingsnacht) are not included, although his imaginative arrangement of The National Anthem is!

Yet these are small quibbles given the overall product, which has a number of bonuses for collectors. As well as a recording each of the published works, there are a few very high quality alternatives offered. One of these comes in the form of two versions of Our Hunting Fathers, a chance to compare the brightness of tone of soprano Elisabeth Söderström, with the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera and Richard Armstrong, with the fuller tenor of Pears, Britten conducting the LSO in a BBC recording from 11 June 1961, produced by Alexander Goehr.

There are two versions of Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, in its original form for contralto (Norma Procter here, the work written for Kathleen Ferrier with Pears and Britten) and for treble, John Hahessy. Sadly the Cello Suite No.3 was never recorded commercially by its dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, but the recording chosen here, by Robert Cohen, is notable for its highly charged finale in particular. There is the first recording of the Scottish Ballad, with pianists Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir, and The Building of the House overture, a live recording from its function of opening the Snape Maltings on 2 June 1967. There is also a CD debut for a wonderfully lyrical account of the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, given by oboist Janet Craxton.

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

There is the very first recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings from Peter Pears, Dennis Brain and Britten conducting the Boyd Neel Orchestra, while Britten also conducts the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Sinfonia da Requiem. There are four Songs from Friday Afternoons, with John Hahessy accompanied by the composer, and a sublime performance from Clifford Curzon and Britten of the wartime Introduction and Rondo alla burlesca.

There is also a whole CD of musicians discussing Britten in rehearsals and performances, with a list of contributors including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Graham Johnson, Osian Ellis and the directors Brian Large and John Mordler. The rehearsal of War Requiem is also included, with the resultant full performance also included in newly re-mastered form, but not necessarily better than in previous incarnations. Finally, on DVD, a film examines the recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace.

Decca opt not to include texts for any of the works using English or Latin text, which could be taken as a vote of confidence in the clarity of Britten’s word settings. Translations are provided, however, for those works in Italian, German and French, and synopses are included for each stage work. The documentation is first rate, including recording dates, locations and personnel. Insightful essays from Andrew Huth begin each booklet on the four sections of the set, while included in a very handsome hardback book are atmospheric shots of the Aldeburgh coastline and locality, taken this year in moody black-and-white by Matt Read, who brings the Suffolk locality to life. These are complemented by some well-chosen and indispensable pictures from the library of the Britten-Pears Foundation of Britten and his artists recording and rehearsing, and a colour picture of each of the LP sleeves as originally issued by Decca, which contains some artwork by Britten’s good friend (and English Opera Group designer) John Piper. There are also testimonials from Philip Stuart, John Culshaw and Peter Glossop.

In summary, this is a magnificent achievement, a credit to
managing director Paul Moseley, the product management of Raymond McGill and the team at Decca. They have shown painstaking and sensitive attention to detail throughout. Each box is numbered as part of a limited edition of 3,000, and its packaging, reassuringly robust, is surprisingly compact for the housing of 66 discs. It is a wonderful tribute to a very special relationship, the like of which is unlikely to ever be witnessed again between a composer and a record company. It marks Britten’s centenary with great dignity, illustrating his versatility as a composer both for his own expressive needs but also those of his immediate community.

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