Review - Britten: The Complete Works

Britten in a box: Decca's 65-CD celebratory setBritten in a box: Decca's 65-CD celebratory set

Britten: The Complete Works. 
65 CDs plus one DVD. Decca 478 5364. Limited edition of 3000 copies.

When Britten was 50, Decca presented him with an unexpected birthday present. During rehearsals for the recording of the War Requiem the microphones were left running and an edited version was produced as a unique LP. Britten was said to have been annoyed at first, though he later relented and sent John Culshaw a letter of thanks. The original LP, with the catalogue number BB50, is on display in the new exhibition area at the Red House, Britten's home in Aldeburgh. A photo of the letter is included in the substantial book that comes with this new release.

Fifty years on, ‘Britten: The Complete Works’ is Decca's tribute for the composer's 100th birthday, and a highly impressive gift it is. The 65 CDs and one DVD are packaged in a handsome box. A 208-page, full-colour, hardback book is included, featuring essays by Decca's Paul Moseley and Philip Stuart, full of discographical material which will be of real interest to record collectors (how many people know that at one point Britten favoured a recording of Peter Grimes conducted by Rafael Kubelik?), as will the photos of Decca's original LP sleeves.

The discs are divided into four categories - the operas, stage and screen, voices, and instruments (four extra discs and the DVD make up the bonus material). Each category comes with its own booklet. There are no librettos (only synopses) with the operas, or texts for the vocal works in English or Latin, but texts and translations are included for all the vocal works in other languages.

The aim was been to ‘put together for the first (and probably the last) time the total output of this great composer’. If any record company could do it, it was Decca - thanks to its long association with Britten, so well documented here in Stuart's essay. We are talking here about Britten's music, not his parallel career as a conductor; his Decca recordings of works by Purcell, Mozart, Elgar and others, like the live recordings from the Aldeburgh Festival released by BBC Legends, have no place here (though Decca has a similar presentation set of Britten the performer, including some previously unreleased recordings, in the pipeline).

The set's ‘completeness’ is very impressive, if not total. Britten's copious juvenilia, much of it still unpublished, is represented mostly by songs taken from the excellent pair of releases issued by Aldeburgh Music in 2011. The most serious omission is Britten's Purcell realisations, though Hyperion's 2CD set is still available. Indeed, most of the arrangements and realisations are missing (the online Britten Thematic Catalogue has a complete list of them) except for major works like the Rossini Matinées and Soirées musicales. It is good to find film scores, like Night Mail and Coal Face, taking their rightful place thanks to recordings licensed from NMC, though there are still more ‘stage and screen’ scores out there. Chandos's Britten series with Richard Hickox includes incidental music for King Arthur and The World of the Spirit, not included here. The radio broadcast of The Ascent of F6 remains unheard in the BBC Archives, and so on.

These, though, are minor complaints. The fullness of this collection means that even dedicated lovers of Britten's music are likely to bring into their collections works they have not had before. Decca's commercial recordings naturally comprise by far the largest, and most invaluable, portion of the set. Remarkable though it may seem to say so, 35 years after Britten's death few of his recordings of his own music have been equaled, let alone surpassed. For his greatest works – Peter Grimes and the War Requiem, to name but two – the Decca/Britten recordings remain a clear first choice, not just for the performances, but also for their apparently ageless technical quality. Furthermore, the War Requiem included here is an impressive new transfer, for which Decca have returned to the original tapes.

In almost every case Britten's own recording is preferred in the main sequence of works. Where he made duplicate recordings, such as the early Serenade for tenor, horn and strings or the Canticle II with Norma Proctor, these are included on the ‘Historic Recordings’ or ‘Supplementary Recordings’ discs at the end. The latter also includes the first release of an entertaining 1955 late-night session in which Pears and Britten are heard ‘jamming’ in a pair of the W H Auden Cabaret Songs. It seems strange to prefer Elisabeth Söderström's EMI recording of Our Hunting Fathers, even if Britten did like the idea of recording the work with her, but as Pears and Britten's live broadcast is included as an extra, it does not really matter. Where the recordings cannot be the composer's own, the versions used are all high quality. We might prefer the Chandos/Hickox recording of Paul Bunyan to the Virgin one, included here, but by and large the choices have been well made. 

All told, this is the once-and-for-all Britten CD purchase, an unmissable opportunity – the centenary could hardly offer anything bigger or better. The set is also excellent value for money, with some of the discs extending to over 80 minutes' playing time. The extras include a disc of (very heavily edited) newly-made interviews, a DVD about recording The Burning Fiery Furnace, and – yes – that 50th-birthday special of the War Requiem in rehearsal. By this time Decca has surely been completely forgiven.

Richard Fairman

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014