Top 20 Britten recordings

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We name the best recordings of the great composer's music

Benjamin Britten

 

The January issue of BBC Music Magazine is a Benjamin Britten centenary special. To mark the occasion, we've put together a list of the top 20 recordings of his music. Let us know what you think – and if we've missed off one of your cherished discs, leave us a comment below or get in touch by email.

Peter Grimes1 Peter Grimes (1958)

Peter Pears (tenor), Claire Watson (soprano), James Pease (bass-baritone), Jean Watson (contralto), Geraint Evans (baritone), Lauris Elms (mezzo-soprano), David Kelly (bass), Owen Brannigan (bass), Raymond Nilsson (tenor), Marion Studholme (soprano), Iris Kells (soprano); Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Benjamin Britten
Decca Legends 467 6822

Tenor Peter Pears performs in the title role of this opera which helped Britten gain an international reputation as a composer. The role of Grimes – the ill-fated outsider in a small fishing-town in East Anglia – was written for Pears and this recording is still the benchmark. Our critic, Matthew Rye said: ‘No one should be without this evocative, wonderfully sung recording’.

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War Requiem2 War Requiem

Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Simon Preston (organ); London Symphony Orchestra; Melos Ensemble; London Symphony Orchestra Chorus; Highgate School Choir; The Bach Choir/Benjamin Britten
Decca 475 7511 (2 discs)

The premiere of the War Requiem was, famously, not a great success. Among other hitches, Britten didn’t manage to get the brilliant Russian soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya over to the UK because of visa problems. But for this recording, made in 1963, he managed to get his dream cast. Our critics decided this was one of the 50 greatest recordings of all time in the January 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine – and it’s hard to disagree.    

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Serenade3 Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Nocturne and Les Illuminations

Barry Tuckwell (horn), Peter Pears (tenor); London Symphony Orchestra; English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Decca 436 3952

Britten’s Serenade was written in 1943, for the unusual forces of tenor, horn and strings. A prologue and epilogue for solo horn bookend six poems by writers including Keats, Tennyson and Blake. Here Britten conducts his partner, tenor Peter Pears, and horn player Barry Tuckwell with the London Symphony Orchestra in a subtle, elegant performance.

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Turn of the Screw4 The Turn of the Screw (DVD)

Miah Persson (soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Giselle Allen (soprano), Joanna Songi (soprano), Thomas Parfitt (treble); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša; dir. Jonathan Kent (Glyndebourne, 2011)
FRA Musica DVD 007: FRA; Blu-ray: FRA 507

A chilling work, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, based on a ghost story by Henry James has always proved popular with audiences. In 2006 Glyndebourne on Tour staged a production which has only now been released on DVD (a CD of the production but with a different cast) has already been released). Tenor Toby Spence takes the role of the chilling Peter Quint and soprano Miah Persson is a brittle governess.

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Young Person's Guide5 The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

And Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes; Matinées musicales and Soirées Musicales
London Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Benjamin Britten; National Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
Decca 425 6592

Britten conducts his own charming introduction to the symphony orchestra for youngsters on this Decca recording. A brilliant performance from the London Symphony Orchestra – in a bright acoustic – that neither forgets the work’s role as an introduction for children, nor patronises the listener.

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Ceremony of Carols6 A Ceremony of Carols

And Hymn to St Cecilia, Missa Brevis in D major, Festival Te Deum in E, Rejoice in the Lamb, Te Deum, Jubilate Deo in C major
Choir of King's College Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks, Sir Philip Ledger
EMI 562 7962

Britten wrote this ethereal piece for choir and harp on the long transatlantic journey back to England. There are a handful of excellent recordings, but David Willcocks and the Choir of King’s Colllege, Cambridge are hard to beat for quality of sound and a tangible sense of occasion.

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Billy Budd7 Billy Budd

Peter Glossop (baritone), Peter Pears (tenor), Michael Langdon (bass), John Shirley-Quirk (bass-baritone), Bryan Drake (baritone), David Kelly (bass), Kenneth MacDonald (tenor), David Bowman (baritone), Dennis Wicks (bass), Robert Tear (tenor), Robert Bowman (tenor), Benjamin Luxon (baritone); Ambrosian Opera Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Decca 417 4282

Britten conducts another of his own works on this recording from 1961. Glossop in the title role, along with Peter Pears and Michael Langdon as Vere and Claggart respectively, create a definitive performance which is superbly captured by producer John Culshaw.

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Britten Canticles8 The Canticles 

Ian Bostridge (tenor), David Daniels (countertenor), Christopher Maltman (bass-baritone); Julius Drake (piano), Aline Brewer (harp), Timothy Brown
Virgin Classics 07243554552526

Tenor Ian Bostridge performs Britten’s Canticles on this recording with pianist Julius Drake in a performance that our critic, Hilary Finch, said created ‘a sensuous – and, indeed, sensual – stream of sound for the tides and tributaries of Britten’s word-setting’. The Canticles use texts by the poet Francis Quarles, extracts from medieval mystery plays and words by TS Eliot and Edith Sitwell.

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Death in Venice9 Death in Venice

Philip Langridge (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone), Michael Chance (countertenor); BBC Singers, City of London Sinfonia, Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN 10280 

Death in Venice was Britten’s last opera and once again tenor Peter Pears was foremost in his mind when the main role – that of a dying writer called Aschenbach – was written. And there is a recording of Pears in the role. Nevertheless, this Chandos recording made in 2005 is a brilliantly unsettling piece of drama. Philip Langridge is anguished as Aschenbach and Alan Opie is sinister as the succession of characters who lead the writer to his doom.

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Cello Symphony10 Cello Symphony, Sinfonia da Requiem, Cantata Misericordium

Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); English Chamber Orchestra; New Philharmonia Orchestra/Britten
Decca E425 1002

Britten’s Cello Symphony was written for the great cellist Rostropovich, so this recording is certainly one to have in your collection. The soloist’s depth of feeling, partnered with the receptive playing of the New Philharmonia Orchestra would make this recording fascinating enough – to have the composer conducting only adds to its authority. A benchmark recording.

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Noye's Fludde11 Noye’s Fludde

Owen Brannigan, Sheila Rex, Trevor Anthony; English Opera Group orchestra/Norman del Mar
Decca 436 3972

Britten’s opera for children makes no concessions for the inexperience of its intended performers. It is a challenging work based on a medieval mystery play. This recording, made in 1961, is bursting with enthusiasm and, despite the odd imperfection, manages to communicate the spirit of Britten’s musical gem.

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Curlew River12 Curlew River

Peter Pears (tenor), John Shirley-Quirk (bass-baritone), Harold Blackburn (bass), Bryan Drake (baritone), Bruce Webb (treble); English Opera Group/Benjamin Britten
Decca 421 8582

Britten’s Japanese-infused Christian parable was premiered in 1964 at St Bartholomew’s Church, Orford in Suffolk – and recorded with an almost identical cast the following year. Britten was strongly influenced by his trip to Japan in the 1950s and his encounters there with noh theatre. Curlew River echoes the sounds of shamisen songs and the gagaku orchestra Britten heard in the Far East, while delivering a thoroughly Christian tale about charity and the afterlife. An authoritative and moving account of a fascinating work.

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Prince of the Pagodas13 The Prince of the Pagodas

London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen
EMI 949 8292

Britten’s ballet The Prince of the Pagodas was commissioned by the Royal Ballet in 1957 and choreographed by John Cranko. The work tells a fantastical story of magic and jealousy and the music itself is inspired by the sound of the Balinese gamelan as well as the works of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. This recording, conducted by Oliver Knussen, is vivid and thrilling.

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Britten Rarities14 Friday Afternoons

John Hahessy (boy alto), Benjamin Britten (piano) et al
Australian Eloquence 480 2296

Britten was famous for his ability to write music of a high artistic quality for children – and this suite of songs is no exception. From the chilling Old Abram Brown to the flighty Cuckoo, these miniatures are completely disarming. For the definitive recording, try this release from Australian Eloquence, with Britten himself at the piano.

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Albert Herring15 Albert Herring

April Cantelo (soprano), Sylvia Fisher (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), Owen Brannigan (bass); English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Decca 421 8492

In Albert Herring, Britten decided to show his audience the cheerier, more whimsical side of East Anglia – where Peter Grimes had shone a light on the darker aspects. This recording makes full use of the opera’s humour but doesn’t lose sight of the darker sides of the story. Tenor Peter Pears takes the title role in a recording conducted by Britten.

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Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo16 Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Australian Eloquence 476 8492

A real gem of a recording on the Australian Eloquence label, pairing Britten and Pears's performance of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo – written for and dedicated to Pears – and Winter Words with baritone John Shirley-Quirk's recording of Tit for tat. The Michelangelo texts all deal with different aspects of love and the final text in the cycle finishes with a phrase which translates as 'What law, what destiny, what fell control,/ What cruelty, or late or soon, denies/ That death should spare perfection so complete.'

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Complete songs17 Complete Songs, Vol. I

Singers including Ben Johnson (tenor), Katherine Broderick (soprano), Robin Tritschler (tenor) et al; Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Onyx ONYX 4071

The first volume of Onyx’s complete survey of Britten’s songs for voice and piano includes three world premiere recordings of pieces written by a 13-year-old Britten: ‘A Dirge’, ‘Quilteresque’ and ‘Prithee’. But there are fine performances from tenor James Geer in Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, tenor Ben Johnson in The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and soprano Katherin Broderick in The Pet’s Echo.

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Concertos for Violin and piano18 Concertos for Violin and Piano

Sviatoslav Richter (piano); Mark Lubotsky (violin); English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Decca E417 3082

Britten conducts his Concertos for Violin and Piano with two stellar soloists in Richter and Lubotsky. The benchmark is set for both works by this recording released in 1970. Both pieces were completed around the same time (1938-39) but while the Piano Concerto is an ebullient work with a defiant finale, the Violin Concerto is threaded through with melancholy.

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Cello Suites19 Solo Cello Suites

Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Decca 421 8592

Here’s a chance to hear Britten’s Cello Suites performed by its dedicatee. Britten wrote the works in 1964, despite being told by his doctor that he needed to rest, and dedicated them to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich’s performance is powerful and irresistibly expressive. And you can also hear him playing, with Britten on the piano, in the Sonata in C for Cello and Piano on this disc.

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Belcea quartet Britten Quartets20 String Quartets

Belcea Quartet
EMI 557 968-2

The Belcea Quartet bring together on this EMI disc the core of Britten’s work for string quartet: the three numbered quartets and the Three Divertimenti. The Belceas performed the Quartets Nos 1-3 in a concert to mark the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death in 2001 and there’s something of that sense of occasion which finds its way into these recordings, made later. Our critic said of the disc: ‘For all-round excellence, the Belcea’s becomes the new benchmark for these works.’

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