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Britten to America - Music for Radio & Theatre

Britten / West / Skidmore / Rigby / Kennedy
Release Date: 01/28/2014 
Label:  Nmc   Catalog #: 190   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Matthew DickinsonLucy WalkerMervyn CookeNigel Woodhouse,   ... 
Conductor:  Jeffrey SkidmoreMark ElderHarry Ogg
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 18 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

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.

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

The Ascent of F6, incidental music for female voice, 2 male voices, percussion, ukelele & 2 pianos by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Matthew Dickinson (Percussion), Lucy Walker (Piano), Mervyn Cooke (Piano),
Nigel Woodhouse (Ukulele)
Conductor:  Jeffrey Skidmore
Period: Modern 
Written: 1937 
Venue:  Djanogly Recital Hall, University of Not 
Length: 4 Minutes 5 Secs. 
An American in England, music for a 6-part radio program, for orchestra by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Mark Elder
Period: Modern 
Written: 1942; United States of Ame 
Length: 1 Minutes 24 Secs. 
Roman Wall Blues, song for male voice, string quartet & percussion (for the radio play Hadrian's Wal by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Mary [Soprano Vocal] Carewe (), Huw Watkins (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Written: 11/1937 
Date of Recording: 04/28/2013 
Venue:  Duke's Hall, Royal Academy of Music, Lon 
Length: 2 Minutes 23 Secs. 
On the Frontier, incidental music for male voice, chorus, 2 trumpets, percussion, accordion & piano by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Lucy Walker (Piano), Bruce Nockles (Trumpet), Mervyn Cooke (Piano),
Matthew Dickinson (Percussion), Jonathan Holland (Trumpet)
Conductor:  Jeffrey Skidmore
Period: Modern 
Written: 1938 
Venue:  Djanogly Recital Hall, University of Not 
Length: 0 Minutes 50 Secs. 
Britain to America, music for 3 radio programs, for orchestra: Where do we go from here? by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Mary [Soprano Vocal] Carewe ()
Conductor:  Harry Ogg
Period: Modern 
Written: 1942 
Length: 2 Minutes 6 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Fascinating “historical” look at works  May 13, 2014 By 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 composer’s 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 Britten’s 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 Britten’s 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 listener’s attention even given that short period of time. The last piece, called “Where do we go from here?” again features Mary Carewe’s 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
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