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All Ye Need to Know

Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century. Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books)

Well-researched, fairly balanced in its judgements paul kildea 2(mostly), advocating the “greatness” of Britten while fully aware of the flaws and difficulties in both the man and the works: in this hundredth anniversary year of Benjamin Britten, this is the outstanding background read about Britten you should seek out. Paul Kildea sets bookBritten firmly in the context of his times, arguing that Britten was a far more political man than most people consider, and that his politics influenced his choices of subjects and texts considerably (as well as his choice of lifestyle).

Britten was a pacifist from an early age, a homosexual in an era when it was illegal to be “gay”, a socialist in many of his beliefs, a person interested in community and small-town life more than in the glories and opportunities of a large metropolis. The subtexts of his operas, church parables and song cycles take on extra layers of meaning and purpose as you read Kildea’s analyses. 

The author shows Britten as a troubled man who had to navigate between his Scylla of a conscience and his sexuality, both potentially offensive to the society in which he lived (that could have had him rejected as a pariah); and the Charybdis of the magnetic pull of an Establishment that was desperate for a new, great British talent in music after World War II. This book is well-written and well-researched; its portraits of people important to Britten come vividly to life:  the composer Frank Bridge; Peter Pears; W. H. Auden; the Mayer family in Amityville during Britten and Pears’s sojourn in the USA; Rostropovich, Janet Baker; and even Gypsy Rose Lee sevenmiddaghstreet(with whom Britten and others shared a house in Brooklyn for a time in 1940)*. All are convincing and make the case for their influence on Britten. But rather than quote the anecdotes, I’d prefer to allow you the pleasure of discovery! 

I found Benjamin Britten completely captivating and inhabited its pages with pleasure. When I reluctantly turned the last page, I wanted to return to the music as well as to my history books about the low, dishonest twentieth century.  A good case in point is the Big Controversy raging at this moment around this very biography: Kildea claims there is evidence that Britten’s heart condition didn’t come from his childhood bout of pneumonia but was a result of an undiagnosed and untreated syphilis that he probably picked up from Pears during their time in the States. The jury is still out on that one as rebuttals and counter-claims fly back and forth; but it in no way diminishes the impact, intelligence or usefulness of this bernsteinbook. Leonard Bernstein once said of Britten: “He had dark gears grinding away in the background, not really meshing. On the surface everything in his life and in his music seemed cool and balanced but underneath he was at odds with the world. He was often difficult and lonely.” Bernstein thought that was the key to the man and to his art; and Kildea’s book certainly convinces one of  how well it fits. 

More Brittening

With the hundredth anniversary of Big Ben this year have come (along with Kildea’s book), some major recordingsre-releases that are as good a place as any to start if you actually want to familiarize yourself with the sounds of his music: three box sets that have come my way are especially recommended. 

Britten-peras-287x300Of course, you could do worse than simply going back to the old Decca recordings featuring Britten himself, so Decca has transferred to DVD some historic performances from BBC television.  Peter Grimes was a TV studio production done in 1969 in glorious colour, with Peter Pears playing the role that had been written for him 25 years before for the very last time.  It celebrates the great breakthrough that Britten was felt to inspire in England after WWII. It’s a strong, evocative performance with the inimitable Heather Harper as Ellen Orford and Bryan Drake as a convincing and sympathetic Captain Balstrode. 

Here, Britten is conducting, and one can argue that this is the most authentic performance you can see. Certainly it’s one to get to know for comparison with all the performances on stage and TV since then. Equally historic is the 1966 legendary BBC film of Billy Budd set in a fully rigged warship that was recreated in a TV studio. It was probably the most ambitious television opera production up to that time and is conducted superbly by the brilliant Charles Mackerras who, despite falling out with the composer, had a great feeling for this music. Again, Pears is playing a role written for him by BrittenCaptain Vere; Billy Budd is portrayed by Peter Glossop, and Michael Langdon is a sinister, Dickensian Claggart, with John Shirley-Quirk as Mr. Redburn. 

These are legendary names in British opera for those of us of a certain age, and one cannot deny the nostalgia of the performances for the Baby Boomer generation, as well as the validity of the sublime acting and singing.  And there’s more: the original TV broadcast of Britten’s only opera written for television beggar's opera(Owen Wingrave, with Janet Baker, Benjamin Luxon, Nigel Douglas, Sylvia Fisher, and Heather Harper, all creating their roles for the first time, and Britten conducting again), and Britten’s hugely successful recreation of John Gay’sThe Beggar’s Opera.

Decca has also released Britten conducting Mozart’s Idomeneo. These are  important historical documents and also illuminating productions of the pieces in question.  But for me the best and most capitivating DVD is the one featuring tenor Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (as one of the most sensitive and accomplished pianist/accompanists of his era) performing Schubert’s Winterreise and Britten’s own folk-song arrangements. These men did both English song and German lieder to a turn, and though Pears is past his finest vocal hour, the sensitivity, intelligence and sheer musicality of all that he and Britten achieve in these performances make them valuable. Indeed Britten, like his friend Leonard Bernstein, was a triple threat: a composer, a conductor and an accompanist for the ages. These are available as a 7-DVD box set on Decca 074 3366, or can be bought individually. They are a “must-own” for everyone who loves or even just admires Britten.

The Essential Benjamin Britten, released on Warner Classics is another interesting box. With its acquisition of EMI, Warners has now been able to put together some Britten_Penelope_0927490102amazing performances in this 10-CD and 4-DVD box set. Among the highlights: the violin concertos played by Daniel Hope; the War Requiem with Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic; Janet Baker’s definitive recording of the 1943 work The Rescue of Penelope; and a fine Billy Budd with Thomas Hampson as Billy, conducted by Kent Nagano

The greatest attraction of this box is the DVD selection. Peter Grimes is from the Royal Opera House stage with Sir Colin Davis conducting the great Jon Vickers in one of his iconic roles, and with Norman Bailey as Captain Balstrode, Heather Harper (once again) as Ellen, and John Tomlinson and Forbes Robinson among the other singers.  The Elijah Moshinsky production is deservedly celebrated, and Vickers makes Peter Grimes into a tragic figure as heroic, tormented, and pitiable as his Otello. If you can only ever see one Peter Grimes, this is the one.  

Also from the ROH, the ballet of The Prince of the princePagodas with the brilliant Darcey Bussell as Princess Rose and Anthony Dowell as the Emperor leading a very strong cast in a very strong production. Glyndebourne come the definitive Peter Hall productions, conducted by Bernard Haitink with total charm and sensitivity, of Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you’re at all interested either in Britten or in strong opera productions of a generation ago, and you think of the  10 CDs as a kind of bonus, it’s worth acquiring this celebratory Benjamin Britten budget set for those four wonderful productions now preserved on DVD alone. 

The Essential Benjamin Britten
10 CD + 4 DVD   Warner Classics 2564 64756

Meantime, the EMI label has released three box sets gathering together some of the finest Britten performances in their archive.  My favourite is the Choral Works and Opera for Children, which make a great supplement and compliment to the Warner’s box mentioned above. The War Requiem is conducted by Simon Rattle with dazzling insight. His soloists are Elisabeth Söderström, Robert Tear and Thomas Allen. The Spring Symphony by Andre Previn;  and a wonderful collection of hymns, carols, and lesser-known early works as well as The LittleSweep and the delicious Noyes Fludde (the one which used strung coffee cups as a xylophone!)[] are all performances worth having. In fact, there isn’t a duffer  in the lot, and it’s a very English Britten who emerges; a man devoted to small forces and community work, as well as the contentious Britten, the pacifist of the War Requiem. This is a Britten and a Britain well worth getting to know.

Benjamin Britten: Choral Works and Opera for Children
EMI 7 CDs  0 15156 2


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