British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was a master composer AND a master conductor. Not only did he make numerous recordings conducting his own compositions, he also conducted very competent performances of other composers, including J.S. Bach and Robert Schumann. He was an exclusive London/Decca artist throughout his life and the recordings in this compilation were originally released on LPs on that label. They have now been superbly remastered for really high fidelity sound on compact disc.
The CD features a wonderful color photograph of Britten on the cover. He was a musician's musician, who challenged both singers and instrumentalists to strive harder. In an interview, Britten admitted that his music was often difficult to perform correctly. That became apparent when this writer had the opportunity to sing some of Britten's choral music, including "Ceremony of Carols," "Rejoice in the Lamb," and "War Requiem." His choral music IS singable, despite the great challenges, and not as "impossible" to sing as portions of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," which I have also sung.
The 1963 recording of "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" is a benchmark performance by the fabulous London Symphony Orchestra, truly one of the greatest of all orchestras. The individual performers, as well as the sections, all get a chance to "shine" as Britten uses a theme by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) to present a series of variations highlighting all of the sections and some of the individual instruments in the orchestra. Some recordings included narration; this performance simply presents the music in topnotch performances with great virtuosity throughout. The sound is exceptionally clear, too, making it possible to thoroughly enjoy this inspiring performance.
The compilation also includes Britten's delightful "Simple Symphony," one of his earliest and most popular works. Using the excellent string section of the English Chamber Orchestra, Britten was able to give a performance that again can set the standards for all future performances of this charming, sometimes very moving, music. The second movement is noted for its pizzicato playing; this extremely delicate and intricate music is performed with great precision by the British musicians. The third movement is, by far, the longest and most intense part of the symphony; Britten took a rather simple but profound melody and built upon it, until it reached an almost agonizing intensity.
There are also outstanding moments throughout Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge." Again using a theme and variations approach, Britten's recording with the English Chamber Orchestra not only showcases the outstanding performers but shows his incredible variety as he utilized numerous musical forms. Some of this music is enchanting and delightful. There are also sections which are very dramatic and even agonizing in their intensity. Frank Bridge, who died in 1941, was Britten's teacher and mentor; remarkably, the student has eclipsed the teacher in fame and popularity, but there's no question the student remained deeply devoted to his teacher, even after Bridge was no longer living.
For those unfamiliar with Britten's music, this compilation is a very good introduction to the wonderfully tonal but imagination music he produced during his all-too-short life. One should also listen to a recording of the four orchestral interludes from the opera "Peter Grimes," and then go on to listening to the complete opera (perhaps the greatest opera every written in English), followed by "War Requiem" and some of the other choral music he composed.