In considering the full scope of the repertoire that Simon Rattle chose to record with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, collected by Warner Classics in the 52-CD box entitled Simon Rattle: The CBSO years, three composers stand our for individual attention. Two of them have already been discussed on this site. The first was Joseph Haydn, simply because he is so distantly detached in time from all of the other composers included. The second was Gustav Mahler, because, while the collection was not complete, it was certainly extensive, bringing some of the less-performed compositions to light.
The third composer to be so distinguished is Benjamin Britten, and the reasoning is similar to that for Mahler. While this is not an exhaustive account of Britten’s orchestral music, Rattle again shows a preference for works that have not been given much attention beyond the recordings that found their way into the Complete Works collection released by Decca as part of the celebration of the Britten centennial. Thus, the appeal of this portion of the Warner Classics collection will have much to do with how interested the listener is in seldom-performed Britten.
Such listeners probably already have the Complete Works collection. They would be aware that three of the selections included in the Voices section of that collection involved Rattle and the CBSO. Two of these were the first recordings ever made of the piece, the Opus 14 Ballad of Heroes, a three-movement cycle based on texts by Randall Swingler and W. H. Auden, and the unpublished “Praise We Great Men,” a setting of words by Edith Sitwell in a performing edition edited and orchestrated by Colin Mathews. The third, a collection of four songs in French, each using the text of a different poet, was given its first commercial recording by Rattle, the CBSO, and soprano Jill Gomez. Similarly, The Rattle performances of the Opus 16 “Young Apollo,” the Opus 19 “Canadian Carnival,” the Opus 27 “An American Overture,” and the Opus 38 “Occasional Overture” in the Instruments section are all first recordings.
The major work that Rattle recorded, on the other hand, is the Opus 66 War Requiem. In this case the Decca collection includes the original recording with Britten conducting, which is definitely as it should have been. Beyond historical value, however, there is one virtue that distinguishes the Rattle recording, which gets beyond the historical significance of the initial recording. The latter featured an “all-star” cast. Having Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as tenor and baritone soloists suggested that the texts by Wilfred Owen could be read as reflections by both English and German soldiers in the First World War. This was a brilliant idea; but Fischer-Dieskau’s command of English was not always up to Britten’s demands when it came to shaping vowels and consonants. Even more unfortunate was having Galina Vishnevskaya serving as the “celebrant” of the Mass text. As a loyal Soviet soprano making her mark in opera, Vishnevskaya apparently had little experience with Church Latin; and this resulted in a few uncomfortable bloopers. Rattle, on the other hand, worked with tenor Robert Tear, baritone Thomas Allen, and soprano Elisabeth Söderström, all of whom had a solid command of their respective texts.
Nevertheless, those familiar with the music may find that Rattle’s performance never quite rises to the visceral rhetoric of the original Britten recording. To be fair, however, that earlier recording owes quite a lot to the production work by John Culshaw, not to mention the skilled remastering of the original tapes that went into preparing the version released as part of the Complete Works collection. On the other hand one can definitely appreciate the visceral qualities in Rattle’s interpretation of the Opus 20 “Sinfonia da Requiem,” which may actually rise above Britten’s own recording with the New Philharmonia Orchestra made in 1964.