November 2017 Object of the Month

Wednesday November 9 2016

Britten left an impressive recorded legacy but this ‘object of the month’ is a rare example of a recording he did not ask to be made

Image of War Requiem records

Photo: Nigel Luckhurst

Every month, a member of staff from the Britten-Pears Foundation chooses their favourite item or object from the archive. This month features Archivist, Jude Brimmer’s choice:

“Britten left behind an impressive and carefully-managed recorded legacy, and we have many of his recordings as both conductor and accompanist in the extensive audiovisual archive here at The Red House. This month’s special object is a very rare example of a recording the composer did not ask to be made.

While working on the premiere recording of the War Requiem in January 1963 for Decca, the producer, long-time colleague John Culshaw, secretly recorded Britten (who was conducting) taking rehearsals and commenting on playback sessions without the composer’s knowledge. Decca then edited it together and made a one-off pressing of the rehearsal recordings and presented it to Britten on his 50th birthday – 22 November 1963 – with the unique plate number ‘B.B.50’, in a special blue case. It is this disc which we are fortunate to be able to display in our exhibition, and you can listen to a clip from the recording itself below.

The disc provides us with a wonderful opportunity to hear Britten working with an orchestra on his own music, naturally in his element without the restriction of knowing he was being recorded. The composer was not hugely impressed when the disc was first presented, though he later wrote to Culshaw to thank him:

I have played the Rehearsal record (finally summoned up courage) – & I must thank you for your intelligent and skilful work on it. It is not for me unalloyed pleasure (I squirm at my voice & a lot of my remarks!) – but it is fabulously interesting, & a lot of it, especially the scenes in the listening room, nostalgic & moving […]Britten, postcard to John Culshaw, 17 Dec 1963

Our friends at Decca have since included the rehearsals on their set of Britten’s complete original War Requiem recording from 1963, still considered by many to be the definitive version of the work.”

Recording details

  • Britten War Requiem (Decca)
  • London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony chorus;
  • Melos Ensemble; Bach Choir; David Willcocks, director;
  • Highgate School Choir; Edward Chapman, director; Simon Preston, organ;
  • Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; Peter Pears, tenor, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone;
  • Benjamin Britten, conductor
  • Recorded 3-10 January 1963 at Kingsway Hall, London
  • Producer: John Culshaw; Engineer: Kenneth Wilkinson
  • Plate/Catalogue number: ‘B.B.50’ Edition/Matrix number: EXP.BS 281; EXP.BS 282

Rehearsing the “Sanctus”

Britten recorded – without his knowledge by Decca producer John Culshaw – during rehearsals for the ‘Sanctus’ movement of the War Requiem in the Kingsway Hall, London, in January 1963:

 

Recording details:

  • London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony chorus;
  • Melos Ensemble; Bach Choir; David Willcocks, director;
  • Highgate School Choir; Edward Chapman, director; Simon Preston, organ;
  • Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; Peter Pears, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone;
  • Benjamin Britten, conductor
  • Recorded 3-10 January 1963 at Kingsway Hall, London
  • Producer: John Culshaw; Engineer: Kenneth Wilkinson
  • Plate/Catalogue number: B.B.50; Edition/Matrix number: EXP.BS 281 ; EXP.BS 282