Rattle Conducts Britten (CD review)

Sir Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. EMI CZS 5 73983 2 (2-disc set).

When many of us think of twentieth-century English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), no doubt what first leaps to mind are his most-popular pieces: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, the Spring Symphony, and the War Requiem or his operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and The Turn of the Screw. To supplement these standard items, this two-disc rerelease from Sir Simon Rattle (when he was conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) and EMI (now Warner Classics) presents a collection of the composer's early work as well as several pieces from his final period. Much of it is lesser-known material, and I cannot admit to liking all of it equally, but it is certainly a worthy adjunct to the composer's more-famous compositions, and EMI recorded it splendidly.

EMI arranged the selections on the discs to accommodate a comfortable concert program rather than offering the music in any chronological order. It begins with An American Overture, which never got performed in Britten's lifetime and only surfaced shortly after his death in 1976. Rattle premiered it with the CBSO in 1983. Next is Ballad of Heroes, a solemn cantata for voice, chorus, and orchestra written in 1939, commemorating the British heroes who fell in the Spanish Civil War. The Diversions for piano and orchestra is a more conventional set of variations, although for Britten typically stark. Praise We Great Men is another late work, incomplete at the composer's death and never played until 1985. Britten based it on a poem by Edith Sitwell. Concluding disc one is probably the most familiar music of this round, the Suite on English Folk Tunes: "A time there was..." from 1974. Although Britten used some melodies from Percy Grainger and dedicated it to the earlier champion of English folk tunes, the tendency of the pieces is more serious than most of the things Granger came up with.

Sir Simon Rattle
Disc Two begins again with an overture, Canadian Carnival from 1939, a series of dances that are among the lightest and easiest listening of the album's fare. The Quatre Chansons Francaises are notable for being among Britten's earliest works, dating from 1928 when the composer was only fourteen. And I liked A Scottish Ballad quite a bit, perhaps because it comes down via more traditional lines than the rest of Britten's output.

The program concludes with probably the best-known composition in the whole set, the melancholy Sinfonia da Requiem from 1940, which has a fascinating history, being originally commissioned by Japan to honor one of their dynasties. When the Japanese found that the Requiem had Christian implications, they rejected it, causing a rift that lasted until 1956 when Britten conducted a broadcast performance of the work in Tokyo. I suspect World War II didn't help them reconcile their differences too soon, either.

Anyway, Sir Simon and his City of Birmingham players perform all of the music earnestly and affectionately, EMI recording it between 1982 and 1991. The Sinfonia da Requiem may be of special interest to audiophiles because it contains the biggest drum strokes, the widest dynamic range, and the strongest impact of any of the pieces represented.

Throughout the recordings one is aware of a realistic stage depth and generally excellent orchestral imaging. There is some congestion, however, at louder climaxes, but it is not excessive enough for most listeners to notice, especially not by those folks concentrating on the music itself. I can easily recommend the set to adventurous music lovers and serious Britten enthusiasts alike, especially now that a few years have gone by, and many retail sites are offering it at a ridiculously low price.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa