Introducing Britten on Record

Britten rehearsing with Rostropovich in Moscow. Image courtesy of Britten 100

Britten on Record – an introduction

Mozart: Symphony no.29 in A major K201, first movement

With the Listening to Britten series about to reach the composer’s final opera Death in Venice, we have reached a good point to pause for a short while to take in other elements of Britten’s musical life.

For while Britten is rightly known and revered primarily as a composer it is often overlooked that he was a performer of great stature too. Yet in keeping with his personality he tended toward roles that were not centre stage, partly out of modesty but mainly due to the nerves that constantly afflicted him before taking to the stage. He did not record any of his solo piano works; nor did he record a single piano concerto, despite performing his own on occasion. Indeed, given some of the green room testimonies, it is a wonder he managed to conquer his nerves at all!

As a pianist Britten is highly revered by many, particularly those who regularly play with singers and instrumentalists. I hesitate to use the word ‘accompany’, as following a chat with Julius Drake on the subject it is a term that can suggest a ‘second class’ performer, whereas Britten reminded us how the pianist is every bit as important as their partner in crime.

That much will become clearly evident as we listen to recordings of Britten performing other people’s music. For the listening I am armed with the complete Decca box set of Britten The Performer, as well as a number of discs I have been able to assemble from the sadly unavailable BBC Legends set bearing the same name. it is most regrettable these should not be currently available, for they contain fascinating documents of the Aldeburgh Festival, and find rarities of Britten conducting music by Mahler, Bridge, Tchaikovsky, Falla, Shostakovich and Debussy to name a few, as well as partnering a number of singers and instrumentalists. These are headed by Peter Pears, naturally, but also include Mstislav Rostropovich, Yehudi Menuhin, Kathleen Ferrier and Sviatoslav Richter, in music by J.S.Bach, Brahms, Schumann, Fauré and Schubert.

I intend to listen to these recordings chronologically, starting with recordings of Balinese music made in America with Colin McPhee through to Britten’s last recording, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. It promises to be a fascinating experience!

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