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Britten: The Masterpieces


Release Date: 08/13/2013 
Label:  Decca   Catalog #: 001880702  
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Janine JansenRachel MastersGillian SaundersPatricia Garrod,   ... 
Conductor:  Benjamin BrittenPaavo JärviStephen CleoburyGeorge Malcolm,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English Chamber OrchestraLondon Symphony OrchestraRoyal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,   ... 
Number of Discs: 4 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

If it had only just said “Masterpieces”—Britten Masterpieces; but that little word “the” inserted in the title of this 4-disc collection—the Masterpieces—makes a claim that seems to ensure prospective listeners (and buyers) that this is a kind of definitive, comprehensive gathering of all of Britten’s, well, masterpieces. Indeed many of them are here—The Young Person’s Guide, the Bridge Variations, the Sea Interludes, A Ceremony of Carols, A Boy Was Born, Hymn to St. Cecilia, Les Illuminations, the Violin Concerto, and the Serenade for tenor, horn, & strings.

But if you’re going to include A Hymn to the Virgin and Jubilate Deo in C major, why exclude the equally worthy Flower Songs, Missa brevis in D, or Rejoice in the
Read more Lamb? And if you choose the Bridge Variations, Sea Interludes, and Violin Concerto as masterpieces, which they are, then where does that place the excluded War Requiem? And the Cello Symphony? Again, the problem is not so much what is included, but, given the heading “the Masterpieces”, with the unarguably masterpiece-quality excluded works. The point for those considering this set, which is very good as far as it goes, is to simply take it as a fine cross-section of Britten’s oeuvre that highlights his wide range of genres—choral, orchestral, and song, acknowledging his special affinity for writing for children’s voices.

Of course, Decca has a unique corner on the market for recordings of Britten himself conducting and/or playing his own works, so you can’t argue with those selections, especially the classic versions of The Young Person’s Guide, Simple Symphony, and Bridge Variations, with the English Chamber Orchestra, and the Sea Interludes with the Royal Opera House orchestra. You won’t hear more vibrantly recorded or passionately played renditions of these pieces anywhere (it’s a marvel how Britten elevates the Simple Symphony from, in Britten’s words, a “little school suite for strings”, to the grown-up, sophisticated concert work it really is). And who would argue that the Britten/Pears/Tuckwell Serenade recording isn’t the finest of them all?

Although the choral works included on Disc 2 have been recorded probably a zillion times (at least a million of them as good as these), the renditions of A Ceremony of Carols and A Boy Was Born by Stephen Cleobury and The Choir of King’s College and A Hymn to the Virgin, Festival Te Deum, and Jubilate Deo in C major by George Guest’s always impressive St John’s College choir are among the best, and the sound, even the St John’s set from 1962 (the King’s sessions were recorded in 1990) hold up quite well. On the set’s final disc containing works for solo voice or instrument with orchestra, we are treated to the definitive Britten/Pears Les Illuminations (1966) and Serenade (1963), and to a scintillating, assertive, vital and vigorous Violin Concerto by Janine Jansen, by far the most recently recorded work in the collection (2009) and one that arguably supplants Britten’s own (with Mark Lubotsky) in both sound and performance, fine though it is.

The big question mark here in terms of “masterpieces” concerns the inclusion of the songs from Friday Afternoons and the opera/mystery play Noye’s Fludde. Delightful and ingeniously written as they are, I’m not sure “masterpiece” defines the treble-voice Friday Afternoons songs, written in the 1930s for the boys at a preparatory school run by Britten’s brother (the performances here are helmed by Britten himself in 1966 with the Choir of Downside School, Purley); the same is true for Noye’s Fludde, which in this 1961 recording from the Aldeburgh Festival is sonically rough and artistically unremarkable, the presence of The Voice of God and the famous commander of the ark notwithstanding. It’s also regrettable that among the Friday Afternoons selections, the best song, “Ee-oh!”, is not included.

Nevertheless, as always with these collections, you weigh the merits against your own needs and expectations—and as far as merits, this set has a lot going for it, especially in the performances where Britten is directly involved. The Violin Concerto is also a winner, as are the contributions from King’s and St. John’s. If you don’t already own these essential works, you won’t go wrong here. It’s just that if you’re looking to capture all of Benjamin Britten’s true masterpieces, you’ll have to look beyond these four CDs. Recommended, minus “the” in the title.

-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

1. Simple Symphony for Strings, Op. 4 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English Chamber Orchestra
Written: 1933-1934; England 
Date of Recording: 1968 
Venue:  The Maltings, Snape, Aldeburgh 
Length: 17 Minutes 17 Secs. 
2. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937; England 
Date of Recording: 1967 
Venue:  Kingsway Hall, London 
Length: 26 Minutes 44 Secs. 
3. Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1946; England 
Date of Recording: 1963 
Venue:  Kingsway Hall, London 
Length: 16 Minutes 31 Secs. 
4. Peter Grimes: Sea Interludes (4), Op. 33a by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944-1945; England 
5. Concerto for Violin in D minor, Op. 15 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Janine Jansen (Violin)
Conductor:  Paavo Järvi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939/1958; England 
6. A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Rachel Masters (Harp)
Conductor:  Stephen Cleobury
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cambridge King's College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; England 
Language: English 
7. A Boy was Born, Op. 3 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Stephen Cleobury
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cambridge King's College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1933/1955; England 
Language: English 
8. Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  George Malcolm
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; England 
Date of Recording: 03/1961 
Venue:  Kingsway Hall, London 
Length: 10 Minutes 37 Secs. 
Language: English 
9. Noye's Fludde, Op. 59 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Gillian Saunders (Soprano), Patricia Garrod (Soprano), Eileen O'Donovan (Soprano),
Kathleen Petch (Soprano), Owen Brannigan (Bass), Sheila Rex (Mezzo Soprano),
David Pinto (Boy Soprano), Darien Angadi (Treble), Stephen Alexander (Treble),
Trevor Anthony (Spoken Vocals), Caroline Clack (Soprano), Marie-Thérèse Pinto (Soprano),
Margaret Hawes (Soprano)
Conductor:  Norman Del Mar
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English Opera Group Orchestra,  East Suffolk Children's Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1957; England 
Date of Recording: 1961 
Venue:  Live  Orford Parish Church, Aldeburgh Festival 
Language: English 
10. Jubilate Deo in C major by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  George Guest
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cambridge St. John's College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1961; England 
11. Hymn to the Virgin by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  George Guest
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cambridge St. John's College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930/1934; England 
12. Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  George Guest
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cambridge St. John's College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; England 
13. Friday Afternoons, Op. 7 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  George Guest
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cambridge St. John's College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1933-1935; England 
14. Festival Te Deum in E major, Op. 32 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  George Guest
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cambridge St. John's College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944; England 
15. Friday Afternoons, Op. 7 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Viola Tunnard (Piano)
Conductor:  Derrick Herdman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Purley Downside School Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1933-1935; England 
16. Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Peter Pears (Tenor), Barry Tuckwell (French Horn)
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; England 
Language: English 
17. Les illuminations, Op. 18 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Peter Pears (Tenor)
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; USA 
Language: French 

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