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With the Britten centenary on November 22 fast approaching, Decca have caught the spirit of the occasion with a handsomely documented box comprising all the composer’s recordings of his works, plus virtually all the music he composed that he didn’t record – much of it included here under licence from 18 other record companies. Retailing at around £170, the set works out at £2.60 per disc – outstanding value, even if there are no librettos or texts for vocal works in English or Latin.
Whether or not you already own a core of Britten’s iconic recordings, you will be surprised at how much there is that you didn’t know, starting with his folksong arrangements and precocious juvenilia. The light music comes out surprisingly well: film scores such as Night Mail and The Way to the Sea may not qualify as “great” art in the way Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw do, but they show a brighter, extrovert side to Britten. War Requiem comes in a fresh pressing from the original tapes.
There are CDs devoted to first recordings of works Britten later re-recorded, such as the 1946 Serenade for tenor, horn and strings with Dennis Brain, and a DVD of the film Tony Palmer made of the 1967 recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace in Orford Church, supervised by the composer.
The set’s most fascinating component, never previously released, is a 50-minute private tape made by Decca producer John Culshaw of Britten rehearsing his recording of War Requiem, which was presented to the composer as a 50th birthday present. He was apparently none too pleased, but it amounts to an invaluable document for posterity: Britten is demanding, polite, unwaveringly focused and surprisingly humorous. The set is almost worth the price for this CD alone.
The Complete Works
(Decca, 65 CDs)