ALBUM TITLE: Britten To America
WORKS: Music for Radio and Theatre: The Ascent of F6; An American in England; Roman Wall Blues; On the Frontier; Where Do We Go from Here?
PERFORMER: Samuel West (narrator), Mary Carewe, Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Huw Watkins (piano); Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore; Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
CATALOGUE NO: NMCD190
Composer, one-time Britten disciple and admirable NMC founder Colin Matthews reminds us in his introduction that, while Britten gave only 95 of his works opus numbers, he wrote well over a thousand in total. Not all of them are worthy of resurrection, but these scores for stage and radio were composed at the height of his early, pre-Grimes powers. None is major; all show the composer’s skill at writing to order. They are placed in context by Philip Reed’s detailed liner notes and benefit from Samuel West’s narration, compelling in the Auden monologue from The Ascent of F6.
To these Auden-Isherwood collaborations Britten adds the tang of two pianos and percussion (two trumpets, too, in On the Frontier). Jean Rigby admirably handles the dialogue and the songs of the ambiguous mother figure in F6. Ex Cathedra voices sound better as a collective than in solo, and the blues moments, such as ‘Stop all the clocks’, feel a bit stiff. Mary Carewe, meanwhile, finds freedom in ‘Where do we go from here’, from the BBC/CBS wartime propaganda series An American in England. West keeps the proper sequence bowling along, with a poignant horn solo reminding us of Britten’s friendship with Dennis Brain. Plenty of food for thought and pleasure to be had here.