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.
Kent Nagano and the Hallé continue to commit to CD less celebrated portions of the Britten canon. Last year there was the four-act Billy Budd; before that the premiere recording of a concert version of the radio drama The Rescue. Now come two more firsts, recordings of the Double Concerto - prepared from Britten's almost complete sketches by Colin Matthews and presented by Nagano at Aldeburgh in 1997 - and the Two Portraits from 1930. The second of these is a portrait of Britten himself, a surprisingly plaintive and reflective meditation for viola and strings in E minor. The image is belied by the rest of the music on the disc, which is buoyant, energetic, young man's music all written before Britten was 26. Big guns Kremer and Bashmet are brought in for the Double Concerto and give of their impassioned best. Nagano and the Hallé are appropriately spirited and vigorous throughout the disc. It's not mature Britten, but clearly points the way forward and is worth getting to know.
Between 1965 and 1967 Benjamin Britten and Sviatoslav Richter teamed up at the Aldeburgh Festival for piano duo programs that were taped by the BBC for future broadcast. Music and Arts brought out this material on several CD issues, which stemmed from excellent tape sources. The selections on Decca's "official" release sound marginally fuller with less tape hiss. Do the performances live up to their legend? In most ways, yes.
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.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard continues to present a repertoire for the piano that is never less than imaginative and is always compelling. The Dvorák Piano Concerto is rarely heard, not because it lacks beauty or inventive scoring for both piano and orchestra, but because the piece has gained the reputation of the 'Tristan' of concertos. Enter Pierre-Laurent Aimard and all of that changes.