BRITTEN to America: Music for Radio and Theatre = The Ascent of F6; An American in England; Roman Wall Blues; On the Frontier; Where do we go from here? – Samuel West, narr./ Mary Carewe, mezzo-sop./ Andrew Kennedy, tenor/ Mervyn Cooke, Lucy Walker, p./ Halle/ Mark Elder/ Ex Cathedra/ Jeffrey Skidmore – NCM D190, 78:41 [Distr. by Naxos] ***:

This could be a very important recording, definitely historical, but ultimately not rewarding at all and of only minimal musical interest. What we have here are a number of wartime compositions for the theater and radio that Britten, ever the politico and desperately trying to maintain his conscientious objector status, composed as service to the war office in Britain, as well as offering his convictions in a manner that would get points across without knocking people over the head. To quote the blurb from the press releases, “Britten made the hazardous journey from the United States back to England in the spring of 1942. Within a few weeks he had faced a tribunal exempting him from military service as a conscientious objector. In his statement to the tribunal he had said ‘I believe sincerely that I can help my fellow human beings best, by continuing the work I am best qualified to do’, and almost immediately he began giving concerts with Peter Pears in towns, rural villages and prisons. He also wrote three major scores for radio propaganda programs: first Appointment, a BBC drama set in an internment camp in France: then An American in England, six programs about wartime conditions in England produced by the BBC for live transmission in the USA by CBS; and lastly Britain to America, three programs as part of a weekly transmission by NBC.”

The Ascent of F6, referring to a mountain of unknown location, speaks of one Michael Ransom who is a mountain climber, in his quest for spiritual salvation to save himself and others. The scoring shows that the piece was essentially incidental music, three solo voices, chorus, two pianos and percussion, and is of moderate interest, displaying the composer’s ability to create on the fly, and hinting of greatness to come, but not achieving it here. On the Frontier is another set of play music, intending to contrast Europe against Fascism. And by far the most musically interesting piece is An American in England, designed by the BBC and imported to America to give them a sense of what wartime in Britain was all about. Perhaps this hit home more than anything for the composer, as the music is first rate, the descriptive essence of the music fitting the narration to a tee, especially in the fourth program, “Women of Britain”, a sympathetic and quite emotional treatment of a difficult subject and the heroic nature of the women who gave all—including family—to the war effort.

The performances are all you could ask for, though this is very minor Britten and will have limited interest for all but the most dedicated Anglophiles. I found it fascinating, but doubt I will listen to it again.

—Steven Ritter