The final section of Decca’s 65-CD box set Britten: The Complete Works is entitled simply Instruments. I suspect that many will find this a rather uninformative label, particularly since very few of Britten’s vocal works are performed a cappella. On the other hand, I am sure that almost everyone will agree that “everything else” is never an informative category label. So I took the trouble to invoke the extra verbiage to provide a more appropriate label for these last 13 CDs in the headline for this article.
Once again, one cannot help but be impressed by the breadth of Britten’s interests in composing “strictly instrumental” music. Even when he is working with a large ensemble, he always seems scrupulously attentive to not only the sonorities that every instrument can contribute but also the technical constraints on what he can expect a skilled performer to produce. This can be readily evident to even inexperienced listeners when confronted with what is probably Britten’s best known instrumental composition.
That is, of course, the Opus 34 set of variations and fugue on a dance movement that Henry Purcell had composed for Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge. This is known by just about everyone as “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” since it was composed in 1946 for a film entitled Instruments of the Orchestra. I have my orchestration professor to thank for pointing out that there is probably more to be learned from studying the accompaniments than from examining the solo passages given to each of the instruments. In that respect the video document of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony at the Opening Gala concert of their Centennial Season (recorded on September 7, 2011) provides the viewer with an opportunity to appreciate those accompaniments as much as the solos.
The recording of Opus 34 in Britten: The Complete Works was made by Decca in 1967 with Britten conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, and I have to confess that the original vinyl version of this performance is the one I selected for my collection in response to my orchestration professor’s advice. It led to many happy hours of score-following and discoveries of delightful details poking out from the many different corners of the full ensemble. Of all the selections on these 13 CDs, this is the one for large ensemble that I continue to enjoy the most.
The real “journey of discovery,” however, comes with the move into chamber music. This is where Britten teases out rhetorical potentials in individual instruments that seem to have eluded all of his predecessors. There are so many examples in this collection that I suspect that any listener would have trouble picking out favorites by any other criterion other than the-last-piece-I-listened-to.
Nevertheless, I must confess that I have a personal bias towards the extended relationship that Britten had with the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This resulted in three solo suites and a sonata with piano accompaniment. I would also say that I have been hooked on the first of the suites (Opus 72) ever since I heard a cello student from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music include it on her graduation recital.
Since this will be my final article on this collection, I also want to write about those “appendix” recordings I have not yet discussed. The “documentary” CD, which is basically a series of interviews on the topic Making Music with Britten is informative; but its value owes much to the selections of recordings that illustrate the remarks of the interviewees. More important are the two discs that provide additional listening experiences, Historical Recordings (1944-1953) and Supplementary Recordings (1955-1989). The dates are more important than the titles, since four of the “supplementary” selections have the historical value of being first recordings; and one of them is the original third movement of the Opus 13 piano concerto.
In this case, however, the most exciting selection is definitely the performance of the Opus 31 serenade, its first recording made in 1946. One of the valuable contributions of the documentary is the observation of how often Britten would compose with particular performers in mind. As I discovered when the Opus 31 manuscript was in a display case at the British Museum, this is clearly evident on the first page of that manuscript. The vocal line is not marked “Tenor” but “P.P.,” for Peter Pears; and the horn line is marked “D.B.,” for Dennis Brain. While the audio quality reflects the limitations of 1946, it is still a great joy to be able to listen to both Pears and Brain performing this work with Britten conducting the Boyd Neal String Orchestra.
In connection with this “appendix,” I should conclude by noting that the symphonic excerpts from Peter Grimes, which are often performed in concert, the four “sea interludes” and the passacaglia, are not included in the Instruments section. Those (like myself) who can enjoy these pieces being performed out of their proper context can find them on the Historical Recordings disc. This is a 1953 performance by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Eduard van Beinum, and it is a real treat.