The second section of Decca’s Britten: The Complete Works is entitled Stage & Screen. As I observed in my discussion of the recordings of Benjamin Britten’s operas in this collection last month, this classification does not align consistently with the categories found on the Wikipedia page that lists Britten’s compositions. At the very least it involves a generalization of the concept of “stage” to include the interior of a church.
Indeed, I have to confess a personal preference for the four works composed with such a religious setting in mind. The earliest of these, the Opus 59 “Noye’s Fludde,” whose text is taken from the Chester Miracle Play, is described in the Wikipedia catalog as “Music-theatre for community performance;” and it was first performed in Orford Church as part of the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival. The other three are described as “Church parables.” They are the 1964 “Curlew River” (Opus 71), which is actually based on a Japanese Noh play, the 1966 “The Burning Fiery Furnace” (Opus 77), relating the story of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego in the Book of Daniel, and the 1968 “The Prodigal Son” (Opus 81), taken from the Gospel of Luke. These three were to be performed as the presentation of a community of celebrants (monks and choirboys) led by their abbot.
What particularly interests me about these four pieces is how they stand as Britten’s personal professions of the nature of faith and of the capacity of storytelling to reinforce those professions. Thus, while some might object to including Opus 59 along with the church parables, that earliest piece seems to affirm that “communal storytelling” conveys as much significance as parables narrated from the pulpit. That communal act includes not only three hymns to be sung by the congregation but also instruments from a children’s orchestra. I think it is also appropriate that the recording of Opus 77 is supplemented with the DVD of Tony Palmer’s documentary about how that recording was made, since most of the footage was shot in Orford Church in a performance that involves significant spatial elements.
The remainder of the selections on these twelve CDs may best be described as “incidental.” While some may dismiss that adjective as pejorative, these recordings provide delightful revelations of a side of Britten that tends to be ignored, that of the “working musician” providing material “on spec.” (We tend to forget that this is what Johann Sebastian Bach did for the better part of his professional career.) Those specifications often included significant restrictions on resources. As a result, one of the most impressive features of these recordings involves how much Britten can get out of modest collections of instruments, even when he is arranging tunes by Gioachino Rossini, as he did in providing a soundtrack for the 1935 film The Tocher.
In addition, as was the case with his Opus 39 Albert Herring opera, there is a generous share of examples of Britten’s capacity for wit. In this respect I was particularly amused by some “background music” that he composed for a reading from Terence Hanbury White’s book The Sword in the Stone. In providing music for the passage in which the young Arthur (Wart) pulls the sword from the stone (read by White himself on the first recording of this selection) is laced with references to both Siegmund pulling Nothung from Hunding’s tree (Die Walküre) and Siegfried’s encounter with the wood-bird (Siegfried), both shameless appropriations from Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. Some might say that Britten was making a statement about the universality of myth, but for my part I think he was just having fun. (There is also, after all, a reference to Wagner at the pivotal moment when Albert Herring drinks the punch that Sid has laced with rum.) That sense of fun is equally evident when the appropriation is more explicit, as in his settings of John Gay’s ballads for his Opus 43 The Beggar’s Opera.
Note, also, how often Britten smiles in Palmer’s documentary!