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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

  • Les illuminations, Op. 18
  • Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings, Op. 31
Peter Schreier, tenor
* Günther Opitz, French horn
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Kegel
Brilliant Classics 94728 46m
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If you're wondering if there's a lot of recorded Britten in Germany, there isn't. There certainly wasn't in 1967 when these performances were preserved. Herbert Kegel was a great advocate of modern music, while Schreier was a great singer of anything. These haven't been all that easy to find, and Brilliant has done a fine job in grabbing these from Berlin Classics.

In Les illuminations Schreier sings wonderfully, recalling the strength and power of Peter Pears for Britten himself on Decca. I feel like Pears digs a little deeper into the text (French, by the way), but Schreier is equally valid in his interpretation. He's also got the more beautiful voice – Pears was always an acquired taste – and some surprisingly sympathetic partners in the string players of the Leipzig Radio forces. Britten was an exceptional conductor, and like Leonard Bernstein's music, his recordings of his own work are generally seen as definitive. But Kegel has some surprises of his own; he lets his players go nuts at the end of Villes, to arresting effect. His contributions are also quite atmospheric elsewhere, and the performance as a whole is convincing, even moving.

In the Serenade, competition is much fiercer. Barry Tuckwell under the composer's baton is easily preferable to Günther Opitz as a horn soloist, and Kegel is less incisive and expressive than previously. Furthermore, Peter Pears is frankly more comfortable in English than Schreier is. Both of Britten's own readings (with Pears, one in mono with horn legend Dennis Brain) are both of such astonishing quality that this is merely a historical document. Mind you, it's a fine one at that, but it lacks the poetic intensity of the composer's own. Compare the two Nocturne movements; Schreier is very good, but Pears is engaged in every stanza, Tuckwell heroically impassioned behind him. It's a classic, no questions asked. This falls short, both as a performance, and as a disc. Another piece of music to raise the timing over 50 minutes might have helped, but there just isn't much Britten in Germany, and certainly not on Berlin Classics. Still, if you want a generally fine Britten program from this part of the world, this will certainly do.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman

Trumpet