Notes and Editorial Reviews
Benjamin Britten, cond; Galina Vishnevskaya (sop); Peter Pears (ten); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bar); Simon Preston (org); Bach Ch; London SO Ch; Highgate School Ch; Melos Ens; London SO
DECCA 4785433 (2 CDs: 130:52 + Blu-ray Audio Disc: 81:22
Text and Translation)
is one of those large and complex works that requires a level of commitment from the conductor and orchestra that almost guarantees a good performance. Thus, there are virtually no really bad recorded performances of the
Now, in the centenary of Britten’s birth, numerous new recordings by leading soloists and conductors are appearing, including at this time, Antonio Pappano (Warner Classics), Mariss Jansons (BR Klassik), and Paul McCreech (Signum Classics). I have little doubt that they will all be excellent, but I am even more certain that none of them will match the searing intensity of the premiere recording of the
released by Decca in 1963, conducted by the composer with an ideal cast of singers, produced by John Culshaw, and engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson in what is, in my opinion, the finest of all recording venues: Kingsway Hall in London.
was released when Culshaw was also involved in the legendary Solti
Culshaw was the perfect choice to provide Britten’s complex spatial effects, and Wilkinson could certainly get the most out of Kingsway Hall’s acoustics. All of this turned out to be true on the original LP pressings that were sonically in the same class as the Solti
was subsequently released for the first time on CD in the 1980s, and then in 1999, followed by a Decca Originals two-CD package including rehearsals with Britten. This three-disc album includes still another remastering for CD and a pure Blu-ray audio version. The single most important attribute of Culshaw’s recordings is his presentation of spatial information. By this I do not mean gimmicky effects, but rather the preservation of hall sound with a uniquely wide and deep sound stage and proper balance between the orchestra and singers. Wilkinson’s critical contribution is the maintenance of realistic instrumental textures, especially in Kingsway Hall. All of these digital reissues change the sound of the LP pressings in different ways, and to a variable extent. Decca CDs typically constrict the sound field, eliminate hall sound (ambient information), and harden voices and instrumental textures. In the case of the
, the Decca Originals version is actually quite good, and is the benchmark to compare with this remastering. The differences are quite small, and probably in favor of the Originals set in terms of spatial information and vocal texture. This CD has marginally more clarity, inner detail, and aggressive high frequencies.
The opening of the Blu-ray Audio disc transports you into another world that must be heard to be believed. The fine instrumental and choral detail is mind boggling, and this information is presented with no significant compromise of Britten’s spatial effects (the children’s chorus sounds other-wordly but is precisely focused in the extreme rear of the sound stage), as captured so brilliantly by Culshaw and Wilkinson. Britten’s often-chilly instrumental effects (compare the trumpets in the
to the brass in the Decca Solti
) are presented exactly as written.
This three-disc album retains the striking black and white cover of the original LP and the fascinating rehearsal extracts revealing the composer at work, plus the same essays by Christopher Palmer and Donald Mitchell (on the rehearsal) that were included in the Originals album.
In conclusion, if you already have the Decca Originals CD version of the
and do not have the capacity to play Blu-ray audio, there is no reason to get this new release. If you can play Blu-ray audio through your sound system, you owe it to yourself to experience Britten’s masterpiece as recorded by Culshaw and Wilkinson in Kingsway Hall. Based on the sound of the Blu-ray Audio Wagner
let us hope that the Universal Music Group quickly completes their plans to release more of their outstanding recordings in pure Blu-ray audio.
FANFARE: Arthur Lintgen