These are discs where the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. For one thing, this (with its companion Vol.2) is a complete collection of Britten's songs with piano. It includes a lot of juvenilia and odd occasional songs which never acquired opus numbers. It is very strict in its remit; we get Canticle 1 but none of the other Canticles which include other voices and/or instruments. We get none of the late songs, such as the Birthday Hansel, which were written for harp accompaniment (for Osian Ellis, in fact) when Britten was too sick to play piano accompaniments himself. And there are none of the Folk Song arrangements either. That said, there is a wealth of material here, some of it totally new to disc - well over 4 hours of it together with Volume 2.
The second great thing in this issue's favour is that it brings together a collection of some of the finest of the new generation of British singers, culled from the Pears-Britten Young Artists Programme and recorded in Britten's own Snape Maltings.
Of course you can probably find more central performances of the major works elsewhere, not least from the singers for whom they were written (mostly Pears, but also Fischer-Dieskau and Vishnevskaya). Nevertheless, there are many first rate performances here and nothing falls below a very high standard. Stand-outs for me on this volume include a fine Canticle 1 (My Beloved is Mine) from Andrew Tortise, really excellent Holderlin Fragments from James Greer (why are they so seldom done?) and a great set of Winter Words from Irishman Robin Tritschler. Ben Johnson is perhaps inclined to make the Donne Sonnets a little over-dramatic, but he sings Since She Whom I First Loved, the real gem of the cycle, quite beautifully. Caryl Hughes is a little arch for the Auden Cabaret Songs, but Katherine Broderick succeeds in sounding a little like Vishnevaskaya in the Russian Pushkin settings, even to the touch of something Slavic in her voice - Pushkin's sleepless night comes off particularly well. Martineau, too, is mesmerising in this song with its lonely wandering solo line and the steady ticking of the clock.
Malcolm Martineau is at the heart of this set, very much his project. Throughout - from juvenilia to maturity - he plays Britten's often exposed piano part quite wonderfully, often matching Britten himself in intensity, than which there can be no higher praise.