This Collector's Edition presents a challenge to reviewers. There's so much of it. I could never do it any sort of justice if I approached this as if reviewing a smaller set. This, after all, comprises 37 CDs. As it is all I have been able to do is to sample, reminisce about known recordings and write around the subject. With this caveat stated, let's make a start.
There are three principal strands of Britten recordings. These are broadly tied into and defined by record companies, artists and eras. First we have Britten recording Britten for Decca.
The cult figure Moondog, who performed on the streets of New York for over 30 years, meshed jazz, classical, Native American rhythms and poetry. With a lifelong fascination for the strict rules of canon-writing, and dubbed the father of minimalism, he composed more than eighty symphonies, three hundred rounds, countless percussion, organ and piano pieces, scores for brass bands and string orchestras, and five books called The Art of the Canon. Joanna MacGregor's stunning new arrangements of fourteen of Moondog's most famous pieces are re-imaginings for larger forces, with a spectacular line-up of some of today's most cutting-edge jazz musicians, along with the brilliant Britten Sinfonia. Radically rewritten, each track retains Moondog's irresistible trademarks - short and snappy, of the street, melodic and joyful, and characterized by a pounding beat.
Soon after his return from America, at the height of the war in 1943, Britten wrote incidental music for a radio play by Edward Sackville-West on the Homeric subject of Odysseus’s return to Penelope. Drawn from the complete score with barely any amendment of the original, and compressed into a 36-minute cantata, with Chris de Souza tailoring the text and Colin Matthews, Britten’s last amanuensis, most tactfully editing the music, the result is extraordinarily powerful. The most important role is that of the narrator, here masterfully taken by Dame Janet Baker who brings the story vividly to life despite the stylized classical language (e.g. “Odysseus, Lord of sea-girt Ithaca” or “His fair wife, white-armed Penelope”). Rather confusingly Athene also appears as a soprano, with the radiant Alison Hagley sounding totally unlike Dame Janet. She is one of a godly quartet of singers who contribute Greek-style commentaries – vocal passages which regularly add to the atmospheric beauty of the piece.
Cambridge University Chamber Choir performs three twentieth-century English song cycles for mixed choir, including the rarely-recorded A Garland for the Queen. A Garland was composed to commemorate the Queen’s coronation in 1953 by a selection of the finest English composers including Finzi, Bliss, Bax, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, Howells and Ireland. The two works by Benjamin Britten, AMDG and Sacred and Profane, are virtuoso show pieces for mixed choir.
This Britten recital combines two of the composer’s major song cycles, Winter Words, from 1953, and Who are these Children? (1969). In them he explored themes of loneliness, transcience and war – difficult and harrowing material which would test any composer, but Britten is equal to the challenge. His music works its magic by bringing out poignant emotions and subtle insights, sometimes even more vividly than the texts on their own. The music’s emotional depth is grounded in compelling, quasi-naturalistic sound images, such as the whistling, rattling train in the setting of Thomas Hardy’s Midnight on the Great Western. Providing a lighter note between these gripping works are four settings of poems by Robert Burns, containing some of Britten’s most deft and delicate music. Composed on the request of Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, they originally formed part of a set of six songs for high voice and harp, and were later arranged for piano by Britten’s assistant Colin Matthews.
Hot on the heels of Anne-Catherine Gillet’s performance of Les Illuminations ( comes another, quite different one from the Finnish coloratura soprano Anu Komsi. My suspicion that Britten wasn’t totally in sympathy with Rimbaud’s poetry is unsupported by documentary evidence, but in my own case there is no doubt: Rimbaud prevents me from fully appreciating the work. This performance has come as close as any to convincing me, however. The opening is crucial. The title is “Fanfare”; that is just what the strings should deliver, and my goodness, they certainly do. Anu Komsi’s is a big voice, easily capable of reaching the farthest corners of those opera houses that are her regular venues, and she uses it to dramatic effect in the “motto” at the end of “Fanfare”.
The Lindsay Quartet have set a high standard of Tippett interpretation, with that special authority that stems from working on the music with the composer. Whatever else Tippett has done, he has not inhibited these players: their performances are characterized by a distinctive freshness and spontaneity, a well-balanced homogeneity of texture and a fine sense of rhythmic flow, essential if the music is not to coagulate around its multitude of contrapuntal details.
Benjamin Britten (1913-76) was one of the most precocious of all composers who have the term child prodigy attached to them. Britten showed a keen interest in music from a very early age – both as a pianist and composer. He would become a formidable pianist, but as remarkable as his early compositions are (he had composed 6 string quartets by the age of 12!), very few people, including Frank Bridge could predict that he would become the 20th centuries greatest opera composers.