Interpreting Their Own Music – Benjamin Britten

Over the 20th century musical identities split and departed, creating new separated species of artists: the composer and the interpreter. A process of specialisation divided music-making between different people: a composer writes and an instrumentalist plays. This series focuses on several exceptions in the 20th century: composers who played and performed their own music.


Part 2: Benjamin Britten

It is hard to find a mid-20th century composer whose recordings are better documented than those of Benjamin Britten. This is due to his exclusive lifetime collaboration with the British record label Decca, who re- released two CD-boxes in 2013: The Complete Works (65CDS) and Benjamin Britten, The Performer (27CDs).
The first box contains all of Britten’s major works conducted by himself, such as Peter Crimes, the War Requiem, the piano and violin concertos and many other orchestral pieces, performed either with the London Symphony or with the English Chamber Orchestra. He also recorded the piano part in his Cello Sonata and in most of his song cycles, such as Hölderlin FragmentsSonnets of John Donne and Sonnets of Michelangelo.
The second box is a unique documentation of his exceptionally fine interpretation of only a few other composers – Bach, Haydn and Mozart, as well as Schubert and Schumann.

Nearly all Duo recordings are connected with only two names: the tenor Peter Pears and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Each in his own way greatly influenced Britten’s work. Pears was his partner in life and in music. Rostropovich was a close friend, a chamber music partner and a strong source of motivation resulting in many important compositions, such as: the Cello Symphony, the Cello Sonata and the 3 Suites for Cello Solo.

Britten’s extraordinary chamber music abilities are obvious –
being able to read the mind of his duo partner while gently adding his own ideas of phrasing and musical shaping.