'Britten The Performer' Series Highlights Composer's Other Talents

New CDs feature famed composer as accompanist and conductor.

Great Britten, indeed.

A new set of CDs, part of the "Britten the Performer" series from the BBC Legends label, highlights the other aspects of composer Benjamin Britten's musical legacy, namely his abilities as an accompanist and conductor.

Given the fact that Britten is known as one of Britain's most important composers — and, arguably, the greatest composer for the stage in the 20th century — these recently issued discs look at him from a fresh perspective, revealing his interpretive and collaborative skills.

Not that those skills have gone unnoticed until now. Gerald Moore, whom many consider the best living piano accompanist for recital singers in the third quarter of the 20th century, insisted that, in fact, Britten was the greatest.

What Moore was talking about can be heard on one of the new CDs, Schubert, Wolf: Lieder. Recorded by the British Broadcasting Company in 1971 and 1972 at Britten's Aldeburgh Festival, the disc presents him accompanying four illustrious singers: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 10 Schubert songs, Heather Harper in Schubert's exquisite "The Shepherd on the Rock," John Shirley-Quirk in Hugo Wolf's "Three Michelangelo Poems" and Peter Pears in Wolf's "Three Christmas Songs." The combination of voice and piano (plus clarinet on "The Shepherd on the Rock") provides an ideal complement to the music.

While Schubert, Wolf: Lieder displays Britten in his accompanist role, the other CDs in the "Britten the Performer" series concentrate on his abilities as a conductor.

Britten demonstrates his distinction in that role with the London Symphony, the English Chamber Orchestra and a variety of notable soloists.

One of these discs features the haunting Symphony No. 14 of Shostakovich. The piece's dark, poignant, musically memorable meditations on death and despair are realized by soloists Galina Vishnevskaya and Mark Rezhetin. Britten's equally haunting "Nocturne" is sung by his longtime companion, Pears.

Some of Britten's less familiar works are collected on a third disc: the cantatas "Our Hunting Fathers" and "Still Falls the Rain" (an agonizing look at World War II) plus the song cycle "Who Are These Children" and the morose "Lachrymae" for viola and piano.

The fourth disc comes with virtuoso interpretations of Manuel de Falla's "The Three-Cornered Hat" and Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Francesca da Rimini."

In fact, the series illustrates the commitment and intensity that Britten brought to all of his musical endeavors, whether plumbing his own emotional depths in his operas, or bringing his abilities to bear on the works and vocals of others.