Live on the BBC: Britten

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Sometime, and probably sooner rather than later, when Internet radio becomes a practical reality, the classical music universe could expand with a very big bang. To understand why, just hop onto your browser and check the listings of the great national European radio networks.

From http://www.bbc.co.uk, for instance, I learn that were I in London as I write this, I could be listening to excellent performers playing a concert of the German High Baroque, recorded earlier in the week at the Spitalifelds Festival. Later in the evening I could look forward to an hour-and-a-half portrait of the important and controversially Romantic British composer Robin Holloway, and follow that by the 26th installment of a 52-part history of jazz. I also see that I would have no free lunch hours this week. All would be spent with John Adams, the BBC Radio 3 composer of the week.

The BBC, in fact, has often had its microphones in the right places during much of the 20th century. Thirty-four years ago, in June 1965, a listener could have scheduled his or her life around the BBC broadcasts from composer-conductor Benjamin Britten's Aldeburgh Festival. It would have been possible to hear him conduct a Purcell cantata with the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and a Mozart concerto with the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. And at last, the BBC is making these high points of classical-music radio available on a new label it has founded, BBC Legends.

The first sets of releases are mainly intended for the serious collector, among them notable live performances from the BBC archives such as John Barbirolli's Mahler Third Symphony, Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust" and Jascha Horenstein's famously magisterial account of Mahler's Eighth Symphony ("The Symphony of a Thousand"), works these noted maestros never recorded commercially. A warmly Romantic Bach B-minor Mass, from 1951, is grandly conducted by the Romanian violinist and composer George Enescu, and features the incomparably expressive mezzo Kathleen Ferrier. A performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet with the Amadeus Quartet and pianist Clifford Curzon from 1974 is hair-raisingly dramatic.

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The heart of the new label, however, is a series of five CDs (with more promised) titled "Britten the Performer." Besides being the U.K.'s most celebrated composer, Britten was a superb all-around musician. He was, of course, well known for his conducting of his own music (much of which he recorded), and as a piano accompanist of his companion, the tenor Peter Pears. He also made a few recordings conducting standard repertory, notably the Bach "Brandenburg" Concertos, a few Mozart symphonies, some Purcell.

These scrupulous, clear-headed performances are certainly worth tracking down, but they only hint at the flavor of the man. The treasures unearthed on BBC Legends offer a fuller glimpse into both the protean nature of Britten's musicianship and the kind of idealist musical society he created around his music making and then shared, through the BBC, with the nation.

Listen to these five discs, and you will have a better idea as to why Britain is the musically advanced nation that it is; why London--despite whatever havoc the regimes of Thatcher, Major and now Blair have all managed to wreak upon the arts--still seems like the classical music capital of the world.

When Britten founded his festival in 1947, along the rugged shore of the North Sea in Southeast England, it was an attempt to move music away from the glare of big city lights. Consequently, it was the kind of place where Richter, a friend of Britten (as were so many of the greatest musicians of his time) and a notoriously difficult pianist to book, might just drop by, as he did in 1965 to play Mozart's last piano concerto, No. 27 in B flat, K. 595, with Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.

Other friends drawn to Aldeburgh summers (and captured by the BBC mikes) include Mstislav Rostropovich in a Tchaikovsky nocturne; Fischer-Dieskau in Britten's arrangement of Purcell's "When Night Her Purple Veil Had Softly Spread," Elly Ameling in two Mahler songs. One extraordinary gathering found Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Pears and Thomas Hemsley joined by pianists Britten and Claudio Arrau for Brahms' "Liebeslieder" Waltzes.

Wonderful music making this all is--spontaneous and fresh performances that seem to live for the moment, musical celebrities thinking not of careers or posterity but rather recapturing the reasons they became who they were in the first place. And, ironically, much of this now seems better suited for posterity than many of their stuffier, more commercial products.

But beyond the simple joie de vivre felt in these collaborations, there is also the blinding musical vision of Britten, everywhere evident but particularly revealed in two Aldeburgh curios. One is a performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, the other is revelatory Tchaikovsky.

Britten's enthusiasm for Mahler extended back to his youth in the 1930s, long before Mahler caught on with the public or the majority of the musical establishment. Mahler's soundworld early on branded itself onto Britten's own wondrous sonic imagination--even years later it would be hard to picture the slithering magic of Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" without the precedent of Mahler's nature music in his Fourth Symphony. Yet only once did Britten conduct a Mahler symphony, and that performance of the Fourth, in 1961 with the London Symphony Orchestra, is a revelation--cool and hard in tone yet warm of phrase, utterly controlled yet somehow haunting.

As for Tchaikovsky, the hotblooded Russian Romantic is hardly associated with the quirky British classicist, their only area in common seeming to be an adoration of Mozart. Yet Britten's stunning performance of the Tchaikovsky chestnut the Serenade for Strings--with members of the English Chamber Orchestra playing with knife-edge clarity --brings to mind Britten's own string music and his own flirtations with popular dance forms.

Hearing Tchaikovsky, Purcell, Mozart, Rossini, Brahms (whom Britten disliked) and Mahler through Britten's ears is a unique experience. These are unlike any other interpretations, and they help us understand ways in which music, and not just momentous music, can live from generation to generation, be renewed and revived for new times.

Furthermore, these BBC Legends attest to a devotion to music on many levels, not the least being careful transfers onto CD of fragile taped material and interesting booklet notes. But the BBC is also slipping: proofreading errors abound. And isn't it high time for the network to get over such lingering elitist attitudes as not including texts for vocal music? *

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