LABELS: BBC Legends Britten the Performer
PERFORMER: Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Mark Rezhetin (bass), Peter Pears (tenor); ECO/Benjamin Britten
CATALOGUE NO: BBCB 8013-2 ADD
Britten was not just the greatest British composer of the 20th century, but one of its finest musicians, as this outstanding pair of recordings from the BBC archive makes plain. His account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 with the ECO, recorded live at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1970, nine months after its Leningrad premiere, is a towering achievement. This epic setting of poems by Lorca, Apollinaire and Rilke combines to form a monumental symphonic song cycle for soprano and bass, a harrowing and embittered meditation on death, which the soloists Galina Vishnevskaya and Mark Rezhetin more than do justice to.
Our Hunting Fathers (1936), one of Britten’s earliest mature works, is another searing orchestral song cycle. Until Ian Bostridge’s excellent account issued in 1998, all other available recordings were by women. But Pears’s passionate interpretation, recorded in 1961 (conducted by Britten and produced by Alexander Goehr) eclipses them all. Despite being recorded in mono, the orchestral sound is both brilliant and incisive, its disquieting xylophone strikingly effective. That this disc also includes the cycle Who Are These Children? (Pears again, with Britten at the piano) and the canticle Still Falls the Rain (its haunting horn part played by Dennis Brain) makes it indispensable, even if there is sound interference on the latter track. It’s only a shame that neither issue includes texts. Claire Wrathall