Although not regarded among Britten’s most important works, his music written for the theatre, radio, and for films during the 1930s and ’40s represents a very significant period in his development and maturity as a composer of truly significant, later masterpieces. Constrained by time and challenged by the requirements of subjects and scenes, staging, and texts, Britten honed the skills and tapped the creative genius that would fully flower in the operas and dramatic stage works of the 1940s and beyond. This excellent recording reconstructs incidental music Britten wrote for two plays by WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood–The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938)–along with music for a wartime radio series, An American in England.Read more There are also included two individual songs from other radio programs–”Roman Wall Blues”, the only music surviving from Britten’s score for Auden’s 1937 script, Hadrian’s Wall; and the marvelous “Where do we go from here?”, from a 1942/43 radio series, which makes you wonder what Britten could have done with a score for a Broadway show.
Overall, the performances here are very fine, and there’s an aspect to the sound, whether intentional or not, that makes an inviting, characterful, “historical” ambience. The singers and players capture the music’s quick and clever twists and turns, creating a just-rehearsed-enough spontaneity that seems appropriate for the music and for the occasion. My only real complaint here is Mary Carewe’s inexplicably squeally tone in “Roman Wall Blues”; her performance of “Where do we go from here?” is captivating and stylish, her voice rich and aptly Broadway-show-tune-ish.
Closer examination of Britten’s music–in which we are greatly assisted by the excellent liner notes by Colin Matthews and Philip Reed–reveals that there’s nothing really “incidental” about it; the composer took seriously the aim of capturing mood, spirit, words, themes, whether the subject was political (On the Frontier), spiritual salvation (The Ascent of F6), or informational (An American in England). Of course, there were political themes in all of these works of the late-1930s, and Britten seemed to revel in his depictions of the opposing groups of fascist and monarchist forces (On the Frontier), cleverly depicted in the two (bitonal) marching songs, sung simultaneously by “Westland Students” and “Ostnian Air Cadets”. Britten often shows his particular affinity for blues-style writing throughout all of these pieces, as well as showing an apparent delight in sounds of percussion and brass (at one point offering a slight hint at the harmonic shift at the opening of “Elegy” in his later Serenade). He even manages to work a ukulele into one song, “The chimney sweepers” (The chimney sweepers/Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;/the lighthouse keepers/Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck…).
And speaking of brass and the Serenade, Britten met hornist Dennis Brain during the An American in England project–and there is a happy abundance of horn throughout the selections heard here, which were scored for full orchestra and are taken from the program titled “Women of Britain” (an especially beautiful passage occurs during “Warren. To my dearly beloved boy”). Which brings me to my only reservation about listening to this disc: it includes a lot of narration, most of which is in An American in England, which after all was less about music and more about conveying to American radio audiences what it was like to live in England in the early years of the war. But since, for me at least, the most interesting stuff happens in the music for the two plays, I found the disc thoroughly enjoyable for those works and for the two songs. Auden and Isherwood’s writing is also worth paying attention to on its own, without the music. This is another very important and enlightening addition to NMC’s ongoing exploration of the “unknown” Britten.
Fascinating “historical” look at works May 13, 2014By Warren Harris See All My Reviews"Britten is most certainly one of the most amazing contemporary composers from the early part of the 20th century. This disc focuses on music that he wrote for Radio and Theatre which needless to say is rather a different medium than one encounters in a traditional symphonic setting. However, this medium and its requirements gives unique insights into the snippets of sounds and concepts that form a composers toolbox of go-to musical building blocks, and the disc is fascinating in that respect. The first piece, The Ascent of F6, is the most atonal of the three and definitely provides insight into Brittens musical language when certain melodic constraints are not of paramount importance. Stark contrast is provided by An American in England, written for a six part series broadcast in 1942 to inform the American public about conditions and the wartime effort in England this features much patriotic and charming sounding music reminiscent of that period of time, and shows the versatility of Brittens ability in the medium. A short piece called Roman Wall Blues follows, featuring gorgeous vocal lines from Mary Carewe (mezzo-soprano) that for this listener was worth the price of the disc all by itself. On the Frontier, which follows next, is music for a play that also keeps the wartime theme. The musical selections are generally in the 1 to 2 minute time range, and Britten definitely grabs the listeners attention even given that short period of time. The last piece, called Where do we go from here? again features Mary Carewes lovely voice. The liner notes are predominately historical in nature, and are a fascinating read. In fact, this single CD with liner notes is one of the most informative that I possess in my collection. If you are interested at all in the works and melodic evolution of Britten, I would definitely recommend this recording."Report Abuse