Britten: The World of the Spirit; King Arthur Suite; An American Overture

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: The World of the Spirit; King Arthur Suite; An American Overture
PERFORMER: Susan Chilcott (soprano), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano), Martyn Hill (tenor), Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Hannah Gordon, Cormac Rigby (speaker); Britten Singers, BBC Philharmonic/Richard Hickox
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9487
Britten learned the ropes as a composer writing music for BBC broadcasts in the Thirties. Much of this work was incidental music for radio plays and documentaries, but in the late Thirties he wrote music for three large-scale religious programmes combining music with sung and spoken texts. The first of these, The Company of Heaven (1937), was revived for a Virgin recording a few years ago, and now the second, The World of ‘the Spirit (1938) receives its first recording in an adaptation by Paul Hindmarsh. It maintains the feel of a radio production, with the narrations (of Biblical, poetic and prose texts) in a cosy studio acoustic, different from the larger scope given to the musicians. Hannah Gordon is unimpeachable, but those who were put off by Cormac Rigby’s unctuous tones in his Radio 3 presentation days may find them too much here (the narrations are individually tracked so can be programmed out for repeated listening). The music, though, constantly alluding to Bach, is a fascinating glimpse into the development of the composer’s style, marvellously performed by all concerned under Hickox’s direction.

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The couplings are equally interesting: the American Overture (better performed in Simon Rattle’s premiere recording on EMI) and a colourful orchestral suite compiled by Hindmarsh from Britten’s music for a radio presentation on the life of King Arthur (1937). Matthew Rye