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.
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
The Ascent of F6: Overture
The Ascent of F6: Act I: Entr'actes for Mr. and Mrs. A.
The Ascent of F6: Act I: Entr'acte and Gunn's Song: The chimney sweepers
The Ascent of F6: Act I: Ransom: O brothers
The Ascent of F6: Act I: Pantomime
The Ascent of F6: Act I: Mother's Song: Michael, you shall be renowned
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Prelude
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Chant
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Climbing Music
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Gunn's Song: Some have tennis-elbow
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Climbing Music
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Cabaret Jazz Song: Forget the dead
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Ransom: O senseless hurricanes
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Funeral March and Chorus: No news
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Blues: Stop all the clocks
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Mother's Song with Chorus: Acts of injustice done
The Ascent of F6: Act II: Chorale: Free now from indignation
An American in England: I. London by Clipper (Programme 1)
An American in England: II. Dover to London (Programme 2)
An American in England: III. Ration Island (Programme 3)
An American in England: IV. Women of Britain (Programme 4): London
An American in England: V. Women of Britain (Programme 4): You walk down to a part of the city
An American in England: VI. Women of Britain (Programme 4): Warren. To my dearly beloved boy
An American in England: VII. Women of Britain (Programme 4): It's a beautiful August morning
An American in England: VIII. Women of Britain (Programme 4): Within 50 yards
An American in England: IX. Women of Britain (Programme 4): Your first factory
An American in England: X. Women of Britain (Programme 4): After the last war
An American in England: XI. Women of Britain (Programme 4): You set out for a training camp
Hadrian's Wall: Roman Wall Blues
On the Frontier: Overture
On the Frontier: Ad libitum
On the Frontier: Chorus: The clock on the wall gives an electric tick
On the Frontier: Prisoner's Monologue: 'Industrialists, bankers, in comfortable chairs
On the Frontier: Moderato
On the Frontier: Chorus: Marching Songs: Brightly the sun on our weapons is gleaming
On the Frontier: Chorus: Ostnian National Anthem
On the Frontier: Chorus: Waltz: The papers say there'll be war before long
On the Frontier: Chorus: Journalists' Song: We fly to a cabinet crisis
On the Frontier: Interlude
On the Frontier: Chorus: To build a city
Britain to America: Where do we go from here?
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