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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

Decca 4785723

The Masterpieces

  • Simple Symphony for Strings, Op. 4 1
  • Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 1
  • Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34 2
  • Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes", Op. 33a 3
  • Concerto for Violin in D minor, Op. 15 4,a
  • A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 5,b
  • A Boy was Born, Op. 3 5
  • Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27 6
  • Noye's Fludde, Op. 59 7
  • Jubilate Deo in C Major 8
  • Hymn to the Virgin 8
  • Festival Te Deum in E Major, Op. 32 8
  • Friday Afternoons, Op. 7 9,c
  • Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings, Op. 31 2,d,e
  • Les illuminations, Op. 18 1,d
a Janine Jansen, violin
b Rachel Masters, harp
c Viola Tunnard, piano
d Peter Pears, tenor
e Barry Tuckwell, French horn
1 English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
2 London Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
3 Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
4 London Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
5 Cambridge King's College Choir/Stephen Cleobury
6 London Symphony Chorus/George Malcolm
7 English Opera Group Orchestra/East Suffolk Children's Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
8 Cambridge St. John's College Choir/George Guest
9 Purley Downside School Choir/Benjamin Britten
Decca 4785723 4CDs
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at HBDirect Find it at JPC

If you have any of the four big Britten boxes from 2005, you won't need some of this unquestionably well chosen and priced box. Also, the Jansen/Järvi Violin concerto, fine as it is, now receives its 3rd release already since 2009, and surely there was something, anything else of value that would have been a little more rare. That said, if you don't have any or all of this (and I did not), you'll find this perhaps the only Britten box you will ever need.

Discs one and four are almost entirely definitive, the Jansen concerto concluding disc four the lone non-essential. Britten was a great all-around musician, and his recorded efforts generally featured the very best musicians in ideal settings. Disc one is an all-orchestral program under his baton, and not only are the performances the very best, but they showcase the composer at his most inventive. Disc four features the composer's legendary partner Peter Pears in two wonderful outings, one with Barry Tuckwell, no less. Again, the Serenade in particular has no equal, although the version with Dennis Brain most recently on Australian Eloquence might have been interesting. And again, the Jansen to round out disc four is downright odd, considering not only Pears' huge body of work with the composer, but additionally the large amount of Britten-led works left ignored. That said, Järvi and Jansen's performance is very good. Weird.

Disc two is a touch more uneven. I've always found Britten's own recording of A Ceremony of Carols to be unevenly sung, and it isn't the kind of piece that shows off a conductor's genius, anyways. That said, these choral works aren't especially well recorded, and George Guest and Stephen Cleobury aren't especially exciting. Guest in particular has always bored me. Even so, no box set could possibly claim to contain the Britten masterpieces without the choral works, and as these are probably the best Decca has currently, it will have to do. Disc three shows the dramatic side of Britten, and kudos to the producers for not picking the War Requiem, a transcendentally great work and performance, but one which has also been reissued over and over again. Instead, we have Noye's Fiddle and Songs from "Friday Afternoons". Very good renditions, these.

All in all, if you don't own these recordings, you should. Quibbles aside, these really are the composer's masterpieces.

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman

Trumpet