Britten From Berlin

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

No one could honestly say that Benjamin Britten hasn’t been very well served on recordings. Virtually everything he wrote of any value at all—from the masterpieces and repertoire standards to the occasional and more or less “functional” works—is “in print”, usually on multiple recordings, much of it available in the composer’s own, often definitive, versions for Decca. As for the choral repertoire, the focus of this recording, most of it was written for particular professional or accomplished amateur groups and thus demands a certain, shall we say, “finesse” to render a fully successful performance.

No worries here. Like many of the choirs who’ve recorded these works, Berlin’s RIAS Kammerchor is world-class—and it’s a treat to hear a fine German choir sing such thoroughly English music, which for some reason is not so common, not only for German but for French and Italian choirs as well. Perhaps the influence of this ensemble’s new conductor—English-born, King’s College, Cambridge-educated—has much to do with it, but whatever the case, the performances here present the requisite mastery of style, of text, and of Britten’s particular affinity for playing with and often contradicting the poetry’s stressed and unstressed inflections, giving proper rhythmic energy to the frequently irregular and unusual lyric material.

This is important because these are among the most telling characteristics of Britten’s vocal music and must be understood in order to perform it well. Britten’s music—and this is something rarely mentioned by commentators—cannot in most instances be described as “beautiful” in the usual, commonly understood sense. It’s not defined by, nor based on, the more traditional long-lined melodic/harmonic structures of his immediate predecessors or older contemporaries. Generally there are no “tunes” you go away singing to yourself. Notably, Britten, expressing admiration for Purcell’s songs, spoke of “contrasts of key, mood, and rhythm” conveyed in a “firm musical structure”—a fair description of Britten’s own compositional priorities.

There may not be a lot of pure “loveliness” in Britten’s wonderfully quirky musical response to Auden’s provocatively strange Hymn to St. Cecilia, but there is an undeniable beauty in the caressing, loving, lilting treatment of the irregular lines and in the way Britten clearly savors the sounds of every word of text. And speaking of interesting text-treatment, the Choral Dances from Gloriana are perfect examples of how Britten effectively subjugates melody (often appearing as short thematic cells) to rhythm, mood, and harmony to make a perfect realization or musical picture of the text: for instance, the leaping, overlapping, intersecting then diverging, ultimately uncontrollable intervals of Time, “lusty and blithe”; the steadily-flowing, reassuring, calming harmonies of Concord; the youthful, skipping exuberance of Country Girls and the, well, rustic, boisterous utterances of Rustics and Fishermen (which here could stand to be a bit more, uh, boisterous!). Affecting, vivid, and uniquely characterful.

Of the other works included here, the very early A Hymn to the Virgin is justifiably regarded among Britten’s most beloved—and dare I say, “beautiful”—choral pieces; the Five Flower Songs have been well-treated and oft-recorded (who can resist the charm of the delightfully rhythmic and melodically tricky The Ballad of Green Broom?); the virtuosic set of seven settings of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems A.M.D.G. (Ad majorem Dei gloriam) also is well represented on recordings, and while perhaps more “traditional” in its melodic/harmonic style nevertheless clearly retains Britten’s central emphasis on textual sounds, meaning, mood, and rhythmic opportunities, including unusual inflection and irregular phrasing. If you don’t already have recordings of these works, you will do well to learn them from these performances. Yes, Britten has been well-served on disc, but somehow, for a fan of his music, it’s impossible to ever have enough—or too much—of it.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Christophers/The Sixteen (Coro)

    Choral Dances from Gloriana; Hymn to St. Cecilia Op. 27; A Hymn to the Virgin; Five Flower Songs Op. 47; A.M.D.G. (Ad majorem Dei gloriam)

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