Britten and the ECO

Benjamin Britten and The English Chamber Orchestra

Just over fifty years ago, a composer wanted an orchestra and an
orchestra wanted regular engagements. In 1947 Benjamin Britten had formed a
small ensemble for English Opera Group productions and had then expanded it
into an Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra for years when there was no guest
orchestra. But at the end of the 1950s its leader joined the long list of the
composer’s associates who fell from grace and was replaced by Emanuel Hurwitz.
He was then leading both the Melos Ensemble and the Goldsbrough Orchestra and
when the latter was reconstituted and renamed “THE ENGLISH CHAMBER ORCHESTRA”,
a very successful partnership ensued with the ECO the resident orchestra at
every Aldeburgh Festival from 1961-1982.
With Britten at the helm they inaugurated Snape Maltings Concert Hall in
1967 (and again in 1970 after fire devastated the original), gave the opening
concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, were guests at the King’s Lynn
Festival and resident at Long Melford’s Bach Weekends. The very last concert
that Britten conducted was with the ECO at Snape Maltings on 19 June 1972.

The English Chamber Orchestra’s first recording of Britten’s music was
the premiere account of “Noye’s Fludde” in 1961 when the composer delegated the
direction to Norman Del Mar. Meredith Davies subsequently conducted a video
recording of an edition of “The Beggar’s Opera”, though Britten himself
conducted the ECO in a pirated broadcast from the 1963 Edinburgh Festival. For
Decca they then went on to make the first studio recordings of “Albert
Herring”, the Cello Symphony and “Owen Wingrave”. Britten would have added
“Death in Venice” and “Phaedra” but his deteriorating health meant that Steuart
Bedford deputized. The English Opera Group players who first performed and
recorded the three Church Parables were also booked via the ECO. Two 1967
premieres, “Hankin Booby” and “The Building of the House” were issued on CD in
1999. The former was subsequently incorporated into the “Suite on English Folk
Tunes” that was first performed by the ECO and Steuart Bedford in 1975. Between
1966 and 1971 Britten conducted the orchestra for Decca recordings of some of
his back catalogue: “Les Illuminations”, the Frank Bridge Variations, the
Simple Symphony, “The Rape of Lucretia”, the Violin Concerto, the Piano
Concerto and the Prelude & Fugue. Live performances of the Nocturne and a
Mahler arrangement (“What the wild flowers tell me”) also eventually appeared
on CD and there are unpublished ECO accounts of the Serenade, “The Turn of the
Screw”, the Scottish Ballad and a Holst arrangement (“Swansea Town”) that can
all be heard in off-air recordings at the British Library.

The English Chamber Orchestra’s premiere recordings of Britten’s music
did not cease with his death in 1976. The following year Norman Del Mar
conducted the orchestral version of the Op.1 Sinfonietta. Then Heather Harper
gave the first performance of the Quatre Chansons Françaises (a teenage
composition) in a BBC studio recording later published on CD. Philip Brunelle
conducted the premiere recording of “The Company of Heaven” (incidental music
from 1937) and Collins Classics engaged Steuart Bedford for an extensive
Britten series from 1989-98, during which the ECO made the first recordings of
“Johnson over Jordan” (more incidental music from 1939) and the original
version of the Piano Concerto. Thea King set down the first attempted
realization of the sketches for a Clarinet Concerto in 1992. There were also
accounts of the Rossini arrangements (“Soirées musicales” and “Matinées
musicales”) that Britten never recorded himself under Alexander Gibson in 1982.

But Benjamin Britten’s performing repertoire extended far beyond his own
music, particularly in the period when he had found a sympathetic ensemble in
the ECO. Decca recorded albums of Percy Grainger and of English music for
strings and Britten would have conducted a second volume of each had his health
permitted. In 1970-72 they set down Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen”, Elgar’s “The Dream
of Gerontius” and Schumann’s “Scenes from Faust”, while the “St.John Passion”
was added to a set of Brandenburg Concertos already recorded. There were four
Mozart symphonies and two piano concertos, plus Schubert’s “Unfinished”, and
there would have been more had his heart surgery not put a stop to his
performing career. A posthumous legal dispute between B.B.C. Audio
International and Decca was eventually settled by a compromise that has allowed
the publication of numerous live recordings since 1999, though a few pirate
issues had already reached the market. Besides such Aldeburgh premieres as
Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony and Bliss’ Cello Concerto, predictable
enthusiasms like Purcell, Bridge, Holst and Delius, and a good deal more Bach
and Mozart, there were overtures by Beethoven , Weber and Mendelssohn and
pieces by Haydn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Debussy and Falla. Further ECO
performances from 1962-72 still unpublished but surviving in archives include
Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto (with Fou Ts’ong), Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder
(John Shirley-Quirk), Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and Lutosławski’s “Dance
Preludes”, as well as Haydn’s “The Creation” and Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”,
plus a dozen or so cantatas.

Most of Decca’s ECO / Britten recordings have been continuously
available ever since their original LP release. They were transferred to CD in
1986-93 and have been repackaged to mark the centenary. In 2008 several
televised operas (including “Idomeneo”) were published as Decca DVDs. Clips of
the composer and orchestra in rehearsal were captured on film by Tony Palmer
and, thanks to ICA Classics, they can now also be seen together in concerts
from Croydon in 1964 and Snape Maltings in 1968 & 1970 on recently released
DVDs.

Philip Stuart

Freelance discographer