Britten: Night Mail; The Way to the Sea; Negroes; The King’s Stamp; Coal Face etc

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: NMC
ALBUM TITLE: Britten: Documentary film music
WORKS: Night Mail; The Way to the Sea; Negroes; The King’s Stamp; Coal Face etc
PERFORMER: Simon Russell Beale (narrator); Mary Carewe (soprano); City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; Choir of King Edward’s School, Birmingham; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Martyn Brabbins
CATALOGUE NO: D 112
Encountering the music Britten wrote for film in the mid-1930s is to be reminded of an age when, in WH Auden’s words in Coal Face, ‘Coal mining is the basic industry in Britain’, and when a League of Nations-sponsored film against rearmament met with the censor’s wrath. Britten’s short period with the GPO Film Unit and other similar organisations proved to be key training for his musico-dramatic skills. This well-filled CD brings together the bulk of his output – music to accompany documentaries about gas-fitters and railway lines, mail-sorting and mining.

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The performances, by the BCMG and assorted choirs and soloists, are first-rate. The problem occurs with the disc’s apparent dual aim: to show off Britten’s music in its best light, while putting it into the context of the original soundtracks, text and all. Unfortunately, the balance doesn’t always work, with Simon Russell Beale’s eloquent narrations often sounding swamped by the music – the reverse of the originals. Admirable though the enterprise is, one can’t help feeling textless concert suites might have made for an altogether more rewarding listen.

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Matthew Rye