Tomorrow will be the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, and to mark the occasion I thought it would be enjoyable to highlight a few of my favourite recordings of his music. The selection criteria for this list are vague, but basically I am thinking of a combination of great music wedded to superior performances and recording technique.
It so happens that all of the recordings I have chosen are of choral or vocal music. Britten did write music for instruments alone, and some of that music — his cello suites, for instance, or his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra — is excellent, but it is fair to say that music for voices is at the center of his art, so the lopsidedness of my favourites is not too misleading. I suppose I should have included some opera.
Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
London Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Britten
[Decca] (Recorded 1963)
The War Requiem is one of Britten’s undoubted masterpieces. It was written to celebrate the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral following its reconstruction after the Second World War. The piece interleaves the Latin texts of the Requiem Mass with the wartime poetry of Wilfrid Owen, a young English poet who had been killed in the trenches of World War I. The result is a powerful work that honours the memory of those who died while also making a strong pacifist statement. (Britten was himself a conscientious objector who spent most of World War II in America.) It is interesting that the three principal solo parts, for soprano, tenor, and baritone, were written for Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian), Peter Pears (an Englishman), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German); although that trio was not actually able to give the premiere performance, they are the three soloists on this splendid recording, in which Britten himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. This recording is not perfect — the sound is sometimes a bit wooly, and the balances are sometimes inconsistent — but it has a palpable sense of occasion about it and an intensity of purpose that subsequent recordings have not been able to match. [Listen to excerpts]
The Red Cockatoo, and other songs
Ian Bostridge, Graham Johnson
[Hyperion] (Recorded 1995)
Britten wrote most of his music for tenor voice specifically for his partner Peter Pears, and Pears made many recordings which, by the very nature of the case, enjoy a rare authority, and, for some listeners, put other singers at a disadvantage in this repertoire. But I am one of those who have never warmed to Pears’ distinctive timbre, and to my mind it is Ian Bostridge, the young English tenor, who is the greatest interpreter of Britten’s songs. Bostridge is that rarest of creatures: a singer with brains. Almost without exception, his way with Britten’s music is outstanding; in fact, there is a sense in which my admiration of Britten himself is bound up with my admiration of Bostridge, so ideally matched do they seem to be. His voice is light and agile, and he delivers these wonderful songs with clear articulation and attention to detail. At the center of the programme of this disc are the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, which are rarely heard but rank with Britten’s finest work. They are supplemented by a variety of shorter pieces, setting poetry of Auden and Blake, among others, and it is all superbly done, with ideal accompaniment from Graham Johnson at the piano.
St. Nicolas, and other works
Philip Langridge, Tallis Chamber Choir
English Chamber Orchestra, Steuart Bedford
[Naxos] (Recorded 1996)
Britten wrote a great deal of music for Christmas, and although his church cantata St. Nicolas is probably a fairly minor work in his canon, this recording of the piece is so wonderful that it earns a place on my list. The piece was written in 1948, and was one of many which Britten wrote for amateur performers (although the tenor part in St. Nicolas is for a professional). The St. Nicolas whose life is rehearsed over the course of the cantata is not the jolly “St. Nick” who now dominates the Christmas season, but the historical figure, Bishop of Myra, filtered through the conventions of early Christian hagiography. Nicolas springs from his mother’s womb early in the piece with a triumphant shout of “God be glorified!”, and the music continues from there, portraying his life of charity, his journey to Palestine, his appointment as bishop, his miracles, and his death (“I bless Thy name, who lived and died for me, and, dying, yield my soul to Thee.”). The piece is a rare union of substantive piety and good humour, with a score that crackles with lively energy. In this recording, which is very atmospheric and brings the listener right into the performance space, the part of the narrator is superbly sung by Philip Langridge, and Steuart Bedford, who knew and worked with Britten, leads the polished (but not too polished) forces in what makes for a treasurable recording.
Listen to ‘The Birth of Nicolas':
A Ceremony of Carols, and other works
Westminster Cathedral Choir, David Hill
[Hyperion] (Recorded 1993)
A Ceremony of Carols may be Britten’s most popular collection of Christmas music, and this is a great recording of it. Britten wrote it in 1942 as he was crossing the Atlantic, returning home from America. I don’t know what time of year he made the crossing, but the music gives every impression of having been written in the soft glow of candles, at the foot of a Christmas tree, beside a creche, with a wreath of mistletoe and a glass of hot cider on the table. It has that special Christmas quality: both hushed and joyous at once. The piece is written for treble choir and harp, which gives an idea of its intimate scale. It consists of ten or so short carols to Middle English texts, framed by a processional and recessional based on the Gregorian proper “Hodie, Christus natus est”. This recording, made at Westminster Cathedral with the boys’ choir, nicely captures the spatial aspect of the performance, as the choir enters at the beginning and departs at the end, but it is the singing in the meantime that really stands out. There is an excitement and enthusiasm in the sound, as though this choir of angels is bursting at the seams for sheer joyous exuberance, and there is an unusually vivid immediacy in the recorded sound. I come back to this recording every Christmas, and my admiration for it never fails. Also on the programme are a number of shorter works, including a very fine rendition of Britten’s early masterpiece A Hymn to the Virgin, which I occasionally try to sing to my children at bedtime (though I am invariably interrupted by earnest petitions that I stop).
Listen to the first few minutes:
Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
Ian Bostridge, Radek Baborak
Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle
[EMI] (Recorded 2005)
The Serenade is another of Britten’s chief masterpieces. It is a song-cycle, about 25 minutes in duration, setting a variety of texts on nocturnal themes by the likes of Jonson, Keats, Blake, and Tennyson, though the most harrowing section is based on an anonymous medieval lyric (“Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte, And Christe receive thy saule.”) As indicated by the title, there are two soloists: a tenor and a horn, and the combination, though unusual, very effectively evokes the intimate, reflective, and somewhat forlorn quality of the poetry. I have a half-dozen recordings of the piece in my collection, and this one with Ian Bostridge (who has himself recorded it several times) as soloist and Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Philharmonic is my favourite: the recorded sound is muscular and detailed, and the singing is terrific. The disc is filled out by two other of Britten’s major song-cycles in Les Illuminations and Nocturne. [Listen to excerpts]
Anyone else care to recommend a favourite recording of Britten’s music? Or just a favourite piece?