BRITTEN CONDUCTS AN INDISPENSABLE HAYDN NO. 95
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Not only was Benjamin Britten one of the great composers of the twentieth century, he was a great conductor too. I thorougly enjoyed all of the items on the disc, but the recording of Haydn's Symphony No. 95 is absolutely extraordinary. Most other conductors (Klemperer being a rare exception) gloss over the gaunt power and solemnity that make this symphony unique (the only one in a minor key amongst the last 12). Britten, by contrast, accentuates these features, in a performance of remarkable muscularity, transparency, and power. Anyone who loves No. 95 should have this performance."
COMPOSER AS INTERPRETER
DAVID BRYSON | Glossop Derbyshire England | 04/22/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)
"My own interest in this disc was not to find some hypothetically `best' performances of the interesting variety of masterpieces that it contains. Rather it was to hear one of the most notable composers of the 20th century interpreting his forerunners. I was already familiar with Britten as an accompanist in Lieder and as a piano duettist. As a conductor I was acquainted with him in his own works only.
My first suggestion to anyone wishing to sample this disc is - don't start with the Mendelssohn or the Mozart that occupy the first five tracks. These are in fact the most recent recordings here, from Britten's own concert-house The Maltings at Snape in Suffolk, made during the 70's. I must report that I am not very comfortable with some aspects of the engineering. The orchestral sound is in general rather too close for comfort, and there is too much focus on whatever instruments happen to have the melody at any given point. The effect on the Hebrides overture, for me Mendelssohn's very greatest composition and the work that most seems to me to support Schumann's claim that Mendelssohn was the Mozart of the 19th century, is particularly serious. There is no magic at all in that celestial start, the great second subject is shoved in our faces by an overly forward balance of the cellos and violins with the wonderful background effect correspondingly forced into obscurity, and there is a general sense that the work is being demonstrated rather than simply played. The opening of the Mozart gives me a problem too, with the rather oppressive timpani sound. It is a beautiful and sensitive account and as it progressed I was getting over my initial dismay until right at the end the timpani boomed out like an approaching balrog again.
These days we are very spoiled as regards the kind of recorded sound we may expect, and at least I now have the Haffner symphony, which I know by heart and could have sworn I already owned, in my surpassingly unmethodical collection. I knew I was missing the Haydn C minor symphony, and to my great pleasure things improved enormously from this point on. Britten's tempi are steady throughout, and for me rightly so. There is a high and deep seriousness about this work, even the major-mode finale, that does not benefit from rush. The very striking trio to the minuet, with its interplay of solo instruments, is something that should make a big impression on most hearers. When the second subject of the first movement reappears in the recapitulation, Misha Donat in his helpful and sensitive note draws attention to a couple of little ascending scale passages for a solo violin as if they were some new discovery. Unless I am greatly mistaken, Tovey beat him to this find in his analytical piece in the Essays in Musical Analysis vol 1, published in the 1920's or so. However, the really significant thing to mention is that this recording, made together with the other two pieces on the disc in Blythburgh church in the 60's, is much better and more natural than on the foregoing tracks.
Donat's liner-note is slightly apologetic about this Coriolanus, but unnecessarily so I should say, and Donat rightly draws attention to the outstanding beauty of the second subject from Britten. What this performance lacks is stature. On a disc of the violin concerto with Roehn made in Berlin during WWII, Furtwaengler shows how the thing should be done, and the recording is surprisingly good. The mighty opening phrases represent the lowering hero himself, and after an awe-inspiring rallentando Furtwaengler's second theme conveys not just feminine beauty but the imposing figures of the wife and the mother of Coriolanus, great matronae laris in long white robes intervening to prevent the invasion of Rome. From Britten I sense more a piece of sonata form with a first subject and second subject rather than the tone-poem it should be.
Along with the Haydn, the best thing here is the Debussy. This is thoroughly recommendable, but by way of a comparison I also played my Beecham recording, and to compare Britten with the greatest orchestral wizard of the 20th century is not a fair thing to do to any conductor. It was given to Mahler to be great both as composer and as conductor, and to a lesser degree it was also given to Bernstein. It's not something we should expect too often. Furtwaengler thought of himself as a composer who conducted, but who these days knows or cares the first thing about his compositions? This is a disc I'm glad to have found as a sidelight on a many-faceted genius."