Ida Haendel’s sinewy and athletic reading of the often under-rated Britten combines toughness with a cumulative dramatic impetus which is hard to resist. Berglund and the Bournemouth players respond with a terse and argumentative vigour, suitably balanced between resignation and defiant rhetoric, especially in the closing Passacaglia. The Walton Concerto, also dating from 1938-9, is played with an apposite blend of inscrutable panache, as in the irrepressibly brilliant central movement, and elsewhere, a sensuous, if occasionally over-indulgent languor. Rare lapses in the finale can be safely overlooked, in a performance of eloquence and undisputed stature.
This Collector's Edition presents a challenge to reviewers. There's so much of it. I could never do it any sort of justice if I approached this as if reviewing a smaller set. This, after all, comprises 37 CDs. As it is all I have been able to do is to sample, reminisce about known recordings and write around the subject. With this caveat stated, let's make a start.
There are three principal strands of Britten recordings. These are broadly tied into and defined by record companies, artists and eras. First we have Britten recording Britten for Decca.
The great contribution of Robert Shaw to choral music has brought the listener to expect that nearly any recording or live performance under Shaw's direction will be thoroughly stunning, refreshing and performed with remarkable musical insight…
This DVD of the recently issued Britten/Pears mini series recorded by the BBC for television way back in the 1960's and the 70's is for all intents and purposes another resounding success. All four priceless documents were thought lost, but this Idomeneo seems to have had a charmed life more than others. Indeed, three days before the Aldeburgh première, the hall was left in cinders and it is something of a miracle that the television production could actually go ahead. First broadcast in May 1970, critics and viewers alike were unanimous in their praise. Sung in English to a version prepared by Maisie and Evelyn Radford, Mozart's first operatic masterpiece is even more telling. A lot of credit should go to Britten himself, who not only conducted with committed ardour, but also prepared a musical edition all of his own. The staging has a classical dignity and avoids austerity altogether and both Pears and Harper give impressive performances. (Gerald Fenech)
Both concertos on this new disc were written when their composers were in the USA around the time of World War II: the Korngold was completed in 1945, the Britten in 1939. In the course of the 1930s Korngold, an Austrian Jew, had become a prominent Hollywood composer, but could not return to his homeland after 1938; the young Britten, a pacifist, left the UK for New York shortly before the declaration of war in 1939. Both composers had been child prodigies and both concertos are centred around the key of D, the most ‘natural’ key on the violin and the tonal focus for the violin concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky
Soon after his return from America, at the height of the war in 1943, Britten wrote incidental music for a radio play by Edward Sackville-West on the Homeric subject of Odysseus’s return to Penelope. Drawn from the complete score with barely any amendment of the original, and compressed into a 36-minute cantata, with Chris de Souza tailoring the text and Colin Matthews, Britten’s last amanuensis, most tactfully editing the music, the result is extraordinarily powerful. The most important role is that of the narrator, here masterfully taken by Dame Janet Baker who brings the story vividly to life despite the stylized classical language (e.g. “Odysseus, Lord of sea-girt Ithaca” or “His fair wife, white-armed Penelope”). Rather confusingly Athene also appears as a soprano, with the radiant Alison Hagley sounding totally unlike Dame Janet. She is one of a godly quartet of singers who contribute Greek-style commentaries – vocal passages which regularly add to the atmospheric beauty of the piece.