It’s worth noting that in the four weeks since “About Last Night” first went live, I haven’t felt the need to recommend a single new classical CD to you. That says something about the increasingly desperate state of the classical recording industry. Still, good things do find their way to my desk from time to time, and “good” isn’t nearly strong enough a word to describe the latest release from BBC Records, a 1971 broadcast of the Mozart Requiem conducted by Benjamin Britten.
In addition to being one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Britten was also an extraordinarily gifted pianist and conductor. But even though he made many commercial recordings for Decca/London, they were mostly (though not always) of his own music. Fortunately, the BBC also taped dozens of concerts in which Britten can be heard performing the music of his favorite composers, and this one ranks right up there with his unforgettable BBC broadcasts of the Mahler Fourth and Shostakovich Fourteenth Symphonies. Not that he does anything obviously startling. As always with Britten the performer, the insights are contained within an essentially traditional interpretative framework–but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there in abundance. His approach to the Mozart Requiem is both weighty and rhythmically forceful, with sonorities built from the bass line upward (an approach typical of many other composer-performers as well). The result is at once fresh and “centric,” so to speak.
The recording was made at a 1971 performance by the the Aldeburgh Festival Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra, and four of Britten’s favorite solo singers. It’s well sung and well played, with slightly congested but otherwise serviceable sound–none of which matters in the least. If you had a chance to hear Felix Mendelssohn conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, you wouldn’t pass it up because the organ was out of tune, would you?
Should you require additional persuasion (and you shouldn’t), the filler is a half-hour interview in which Britten talks about such subjects as the process of composing, opera on TV, and his reluctance to teach. It’s worth the price of the album all by itself.