Britten on Record: Beethoven: Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major Op.16

Britten on Record: Beethoven: Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major Op.16 (BBC Legends)

Benjamin Britten (piano), Leonard Brain (oboe), Stephen Waters (clarinet), Dennis Brain (horn), Cecil James (bassoon)

Live recording: Aldeburgh Festival – Aldeburgh Parish Church, 22 June 1955

1 Grave – Allegro, ma non troppo
2 Andante cantabile
3 Rondo. Allegro, ma non troppo

Audio

Clips from each of the three movements can be heard over on the All Music website.

Background and Critical Reception

This is the first of a number of Britten recordings preserved by the BBC and issued as part of their BBC Legends label / series. Of late the enterprise seems to have stopped, but in the last 15 years they have made a large number of extremely valuable recordings available for the first time.

The disc in question focuses on recordings made by the horn player Dennis Brain, whose life was tragically cut short by a car accident in 1957, at the age of 36. Britten enjoyed a lasting friendship with him that yielded the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, and Brain was also a visitor to the Aldeburgh Festival when that began.

This recording dates from the 1955 festival, and in the booklet Tully Potter describes Britten’s contribution as ‘bringing a Mozartian touch to this Mozart-inspired work and showing no sign of his antipathy to Beethoven’.

Thoughts

I have always enjoyed this piece as background listening, which is not to say it is negligible in musical content, but that it has some lovely sonorities and melodies that are easy on the ear. This is one of Beethoven’s more amiable works, appreciating the interplay of wind instruments with a smile frequently on its face, with a piano part that is half way to that of a concerto.

The recording itself is quite murky, and some of the wind instruments are rather backward in the mix, but once you get through the mottled textures the musicality completely carries the piece. There is a very appealing grace to the piano theme of the first movement, when it changes gear from slow introduction to fast movement proper. There is also a heart melting contribution from Brain himself half way through the slow movement, then a really nice lilt to the last movement theme, again in the hands of Britten.

Also recorded in 1955: Bach – Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould) (Columbia)

Next up: English songs by Bridge, Butterworth, Moeran, Warlock, Ireland, Berkeley and Oldham

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