First, two stories.
Story No. 1: I was browsing (okay, lurking) on one of the audiophile chat sites last week and saw a question from someone who’d heard a Vivaldi recording he liked. It was apparently the first classical recording he’d ever really listened to, and now he wondered: What should I hear next?
Good question, right? And did he ever get answers. One well-meaning lurker recommended a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies. Just like that! Not only Beethoven and not only the symphonies, mind you, but a complete set from a particular conductor who is not yet, incidentally, a household name. Someone else recommended lists and essays compiled by one of the well-liked classical enthusiasts on the site. Two other respondents offered lists of record labels with good reputations. Short lists, incidentally, with almost no duplication between them, which I found interesting.
Nobody thought to ask our Accidental Vivaldi Fan what he had liked about those concertos. Was it the rhythms? The simple, driving, repetitive tunes? The tone color of the instruments? The overall vitality, or sweetness, or emotional communication of that music?
No, we just leapt in (me, too, I’m afraid) with our own lists. Desert Island Discs. Records 2 Die 4. Top Five, Top Ten, Top 100. I wonder what it felt like, trying to drink from that firehose.
Story No. 2: Oh, Decca, now you’ve done it. This being the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), and Decca being the label most associated with his music over the course of his lifetime, they are offering a “limited edition” of 66 CDs covering the Complete Works. It’s a monumental contribution, no doubt. There are some landmark recordings in it, some rarities, various “bonus” items, and it’s going at a bargain-basement price for big classical boxes: you can order the thing on Amazon for less than $300. Better do it now.
Yes, that was tinged with sarcasm, but don’t get me wrong. It is certainly a valuable collection, and I’m not knocking the labels’ latest attempts to stay afloat. The same brochure that brought news of Big Britten also bore tidings of ten new EMI Budget Boxes, a new Ring Cycle from Christian Thielemann, the “first ever complete collection of the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts” and, yes, Daniel Barenboim’s latest assault on the Beethoven symphonies. Revenue from reissues must seem especially sweet to Decca and EMI and Sony/BMG/Time Warner/Electrolux—for one thing they don’t have to pay the artists or engineers, most of whom are dead anyway. (Not Thielemann or Barenboim, of course.) And for consumers, where’s the downside in getting a staggering quantity of great music for—really—very little outlay?
Actually, there is a downside, but I’m not going to go there right now. Instead, I want to say a few useful things about a handful of other good Britten recordings. I don’t buy music by the boxload. (I’ve never met anyone who does, but maybe I hang out with the wrong crowd.) For better or worse, I taste a little here, a little there, and then sometimes a little more. I do have favorites. Also, even though I’m hard to please, I am always looking for new favorites. One at a time.
So: back to Britten. Maybe you already have that Decca set on order. Or maybe you already have everything in that Decca set somewhere on your shelves. This column may not be for you. It’s for the Accidental Britten Fan. Suppose you’ve heard something by him, and you sort of liked it. Maybe it was even The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which is a pretty good piece, and not only for Young Persons. Maybe you heard it accidentally, for example in Wes Anderson’s enchanting Moonrise Kingdom (which features a lot of other good Britten as well). And now you think you might like to hear more. Here is your guide, one record at a time.
Let’s stay with Britten’s instrumental music. He made his first big splashes as a composer with symphonic and chamber works, and, although they have received less attention in recent years, they still sound good. One of the first really good ones was his Opus 10, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Bridge was his teacher. Although some wags have suggested that Britten was satirizing various national styles, etc., with these variations, he thought of them more as a portrait of his beloved mentor, sketching in turn “his depth, energy, charm, humour, tradition, enthusiasm, vitality, sympathy, reverence.” Here is the introduction:
And here is a little of Bridge’s “humour,” via Britten’s fourth variation, an “Aria Italiana”:
Those are the strings of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, in an extremely well-recorded multichannel SACD from PentaTone (PTC 5186 056) that includes two other works from the late 1930s, Bartók’s Divertimento and Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre.
From hearing the introduction to those Variations, you will have gotten a good idea of young Britten’s flair for drama. He seemed to know instinctively how to set out with a bold stroke, and then do the next right thing, and the next after that, and so forth. That talent served him very well in his Opus 20, the Sinfonia da Requiem. It was commissioned in 1940 by the Japanese government, which sought to mark the 2,600th anniversary of its ruling dynasty with new music from a variety of composers. Britten accepted the commission, brokered through British diplomatic channels, without being aware that the Emperor of Japan would be the honoree.
In the event, the Japanese objected strenuously to the program of the Sinfonia, which employed text titles (“Lacrymosa,” “Dies irae,” “Requiem aeternam”) from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead to describe the emotional thrust of the work’s three movements. Aside from its references to Christian liturgy, the work may have offended the Japanese because of its pronounced anti-war subtext. (In 1940 Japan was at war with China but had not yet become a global belligerent by joining the Axis Powers.) As Steven Kruger points out in his imaginative notes for the Oregon Symphony’s recording,
The Sinfonia da Requiem opens with perhaps the most memorable timpani explosion in all of music: a hall-flattening bombshell of a first chord, underneath which one hears the growling of aircraft engines in the low brass. As though stunned, the orchestra takes some time to emerge from the debris. . . . As the music advances, or rather seems not to, one appears frozen in the “Phony War” of that summer, constantly alerted by trumpets to events which seem not to occur. But then of course, they do. . . .
One need not fully subscribe to Mr. Kruger’s fanciful descriptions in order to respond to Britten’s ferocity. Listen:
The second movement echoes other sounds that seem to emanate from “the fog of war”:
I have two good recordings of this work, and I wouldn’t want to be without either one. We have been listening to excerpts from a PentaTone release, Music for a Time of War (PTC 5186 393), with the Oregon Symphony conducted by Carlos Kalmar, produced by Blanton Alspaugh and engineered by John Newton and Jesse Lewis from live performances. I reviewed it here.
There’s also a terrific recording from “Prof.” Johnson and Reference Recordings, Britten’s Orchestra (RR-120). Moment for moment, the Kansas City Symphony’s Sinfonia da Requiem is just as dynamic and expressive as Oregon’s, or at least close. And the lower end! Bass drum, bass fiddles, low brass to die for. North of the bass, the sound is no less stunning, even if its velvety sheen does tip a bit toward the yin side. You ought to get this if you don’t already have it. It’s worth at least two boxfuls of old EMI re-releases.
Before we head over to vocal and chamber music, let’s look at two more early orchestral works. These are the Piano Concerto (1938) and the Violin Concerto (1939). I find it puzzling that neither has become a concert staple in the years since their creation, although Sviatoslav Richter’s advocacy for the Piano Concerto in the 1960s helped a lot. In 1938, perhaps that Piano Concerto was just a little too brilliant. Listen:
That’s brilliant pianist Howard Shelley, by the way, not Richter; details below. Early critics found it easy to dismiss this work because of its virtuosity—both in the creative and performative senses. Huh, they said. Too clever by half! Who does this young fellow think he is?
There is an ancient, Germanic prejudice against attractive surfaces: if it sounds good, it probably lacks “depth.” As the critic for the Musical Times wrote,
Mr. Britten’s cleverness, of which he has frequently been told, has got the better of him and led him into all sorts of errors, the worst of which are errors of taste. . . . Now and then real music crops up . . . but on the whole Mr. Britten is exploiting a brilliant facility that ought to be kept in subservience.
For reasons that had nothing to do with the Musical Times, Britten stepped forward a year later with a work that exhibited significantly more emotional substance and structural innovation, the Violin Concerto. It is a palpable masterpiece, the one Britten work I discovered this year to add to my personal list of the 20th century’s greatest music. (Of course I already knew several other Britten “greatests”!)
The late Michael Steinberg wrote an especially eloquent and useful essay on the Violin Concerto. In it, he noted that by 1939 the Spanish Civil War was over, and that many of Britten’s friends had fought with the Republican side. Britten, himself a lifelong pacifist, had moved to the United States, feeling profoundly alienated from events and attitudes in Europe. He brought with him the unfinished score of the Violin Concerto, which he intended for eventual performance by a friend, Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa. The music is shot through with “Spanish”-sounding rhythms and modalities, major-vs.-minor chief among them. Listen to this ghostly dance theme from the first movement:
Like Hartmann’s work, this is a concerto funèbre, a requiem for Spain under the Fascists, strongly anticipating the even bigger symphonic statement Britten would make the following year. It turns standard concerto structure—fast-slow-fast—inside out, making the first and third movements vast meditative pillars interrupted by a brief, biting scherzo that owes much to Mahler and Shostakovich. Its scoring will take your breath away. Here’s how it begins:
I could play yet more astonishing clips from that scherzo, but you really need to experience such things in the context of the whole work, and on a good system.
After a haunting cadenza, the violinist leads us into the last movement, which turns out to be a passacaglia, i.e., a set of variations over a repeated bass figure, in the Baroque manner of Henry Purcell. Purcellian passacaglias—or chacony, as both Purcell and Britten sometimes called them—became one of Britten’s trademark formal devices. Here we encounter an early usage, and one of this composer’s finest.
Both of these concertos receive excellent performances on a new Chandos recording (CHAN 10764) featuring violinist Tasmin Little, pianist Howard Shelley, and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Edward Gardner. It bowled me over, especially Little’s work on the Violin Concerto. I cannot imagine ever hearing a better rendition. In the liner notes (which include well-written history and analysis from Mervyn Cooke), Little praises Gardner for bringing “the drive and passion to the piece that it needs,” and for his willingness “to take risks in pursuit of an electrifying performance.” It is that and more, by turns delicate, sensuous, and savagely honest. These three high-wire artists have produced an enormously satisfying record. Highly recommended.
The war years cannot have been easy for Britten. As a conscientious objector, he sat out the first part of World War II in the United States. There he continued a friendship with poet W. H. Auden, with whom he had collaborated on documentary film projects and more back in the UK.
The Auden association was one factor that led Britten to a new focus on vocal music, especially English verse settings. Another was his deepening relationship with tenor Peter Pears, who had come with him to North America and would become his lifelong companion and frequent musical collaborator. Finally, there was the experience of having left the soil on which he had been raised. Sometimes nothing makes us more aware of our truest selves than a sojourn abroad. Vacationing in California, Britten—a native of Suffolk—read an essay by E. M. Forster about Suffolk poet George Crabbe. Pears sought out a book of Crabbe’s poems and showed it to Britten. After reading “The Borough,” about a tormented Aldeburgh fisherman named Peter Grimes, “in a flash” Britten realized “two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged.”
By 1942 Britten was headed back to England on a Swedish cargo ship, the Axel Johnson. While onboard he occupied himself with A Ceremony of Carols, which remains perhaps his best known, most often performed choral work. During the voyage he also finished the Hymn to St. Cecilia, for which Auden had supplied the words. A year later, he composed a “festival cantata,” Rejoice in the Lamb, to excerpts from verse by 18th-century scholar and eccentric Christopher Smart; Auden had introduced Britten to Smart’s work earlier.
These three works form a sort of holy trinity of Britten’s sacred choral music. They will be familiar to anyone who has sung in a good choir, or conducted one, or frequented choral concerts. Such “anyones” will probably already have recordings, including Britten’s own performances or some of Robert Shaw’s meticulous renditions.
If you are not part of the been-there-done-that brigade, may I recommend a single choral Britten disc that you might enjoy? That would be from the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Christopher Robinson (Naxos 8.554791). It includes Rejoice in the Lamb, Hymn to St. Cecilia, two Te Deums, the Missa brevis Op. 62, and a marvelous early work, Hymn to the Virgin. Here’s what I like about this recording: it is done by a traditional English “cathedral” choir, men and boys, resonant chapel space, organ, the whole package. Here’s what I also like: this group ignores the annoying parts of that tradition, like stodgy tempos, muddy textures, poor choral ensemble, hooting sopranos, and all-purpose dignified restraint. No: the St. John’s tradition calls for warm, vibrantly expressive interpretation, and that is what you get here.
This is especially important with Britten’s choral music, because it occupies a problematic position in relationship to the English cathedral tradition. No one could possibly mistake Auden’s poetry in the Hymn to St. Cecilia for a conventional liturgical text:
In a garden shady this holy lady
With rev’rent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Pour’d forth her song in perfect calm: . . .
Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea; . . .
Auden may sound superficially clever, but he is getting at some deep stuff here, including the relationship between art and life, and between artists and their followers, while also delving obliquely into aspects of Britten’s personal torments (he knew them well). Still, I don’t think anyone seeks out this Hymn because of Auden’s text. Here’s why choirs keep singing it:
The same principle applies to Christopher Smart. His words work well in the context Britten fashioned for them but may otherwise confuse the reader—Smart was imprisoned for incurable “madness” (also possibly for debts), which partly explains why he wrote verses about his cat Jeoffry, “the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.” But wait until you hear Rejoice in the Lamb, which presents choice excerpts from Smart within the structure of a Purcell verse anthem. It’s exalted, and exalting.
For the instruments are by their rhimes.
For the Shawm rhimes are lawn fawn moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth suit mute and the like. . . .
For the TRUMPET of God is a blessed intelligence and so are all the instruments in HEAV’N.
For GOD the father Almighty plays upon the HARP of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases and the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.
Hallelujah from the heart of God . . .
We must wrap things up, even though I wanted to say more about Britten’s song settings. Short version: if you have never heard any Britten songs in your life, try starting with Songs & Proverbs of William Blake (Hyperion CDA67778). This cycle was written for the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and I recommend this recording, which includes other songs by Britten, because of sterling performances by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake, plus its excellent sound quality. In one sense the music is atypical, in that much of it wasn’t written for Peter Pears. All the more reason to recommend it, since not everyone likes Pears’ voice at first. So why not start out with Mr. Finley, one of the great baritones of our day? Here is a folk-song setting, “Bird-Scarer’s Song,” that ends this talk on a lighter note:
Now we’re well and truly out of space. We didn’t get to chamber music, or to the fruits of Britten’s late-in-life work with the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, or to opera—opera, for Pete’s and Ben’s sake. Thus, I’m going to break with my own traditions, and offer Britten Part Two later this month. See you then.