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We asked some of Radio 3's Britten Centenary Weekend presenters to tell us about their favourite pieces by Britten ... 

Louise Fryer
I love the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The Suffolk coastline has an austere beauty that Britten captures in his music. The sea is a constant presence, but one with a changeable character – beguiling one moment, threatening the next.  You can hear that Britten was intimately acquainted with it. It’s a part of the country I also know well – I live further down the Suffolk coast. A trip to Aldeburgh has always been a favourite day out. I’ll usually head straight for the sea – tramping across the steeply shelving beach, trying to flick bits of shingle out of my shoes, to reach the small strip of yellow sand at the water’s edge. Braving the water in the summer – it may be glittering with sunlight but it is always cold! - or going for a winter tramp along the tideline, running close as the waves suck out and, as they roll in, backing away just in time to keep my feet dry. Or standing with my back to the water and looking at the houses along the front – tall Victorian villas, with pastel-painted wrought iron balconies and porches, a few more modern buildings interspersed – among them Crag House – and the lifeboat station and, just inland from the beach, the Moot Hall. There’s usually time for fish and chips, (when I was young you were allowed to eat them on the beach) being dive-bombed by seagulls. And there’s the opportunity to buy shrimps or fresh fish from the lfishermen’s shacks, before heading home. All this comes to mind as soon as I hear the opening bars of the music.  And having sat on the shingle this summer, watching the production of Peter Grimes on the Beach, with the sea for a backdrop and the sky streaked with pink as the sun set in the wake of a rainstorm, a lazy gull winging its way above the set, the music is more strongly evocative of Aldeburgh than ever.

Suzy Klein
While I must have encountered it before, I first remember really 'hearing' Britten's music when I went, as a music student, to a performance of the War Requiem. The piece completely poleaxed me. I vividly remember feeling a kind of visceral tremor at the Dies Irae; the blazing brass, the clarity of Britten's writing making those Latin words of vengeance sound as if they were newly-minted. The 'monstrous anger of the guns' of Wifred Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' had me swallowing back tears. I immediately got the score out of the library and was stunned by it – the potency of Britten's pacifism translated into music of searing beauty and desolation.

Andrew McGregor
After leading a school orchestra in St Nicholas, I came to know Britten’s music best as a singer. His sacred choral music was a magical introduction for a young countertenor and choral scholar, and my first Britten solo was as the Mouse in Rejoice in the Lamb, whiskers bristling (and heart pounding, as I can remember to this day).

Sean Rafferty
Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac: I first heard this seemingly simple piece from the inside out – singing, very falteringly, the part of Isaac to our local doctor’s Abraham; he could have been professional. Just two voices and piano, but what a wealth of drama: the sense of mysticism and the boy’s uneasiness so sparingly but vibrantly drawn. The Jesuits got it right about religion; the same applies to music – immersion as young as possible!

Tom Service

Tom Service
Les Illuminations is my choice: this is the one of the first pieces, for me, in which Britten's musical and emotional, poetic and sexual, sensuous and structural selves are fully revealed. Setting Rimbaud's poetry for solo voice and strings - originally soprano, but now a tenor, more often than not - the music amounts to a personal and artistic credo, above all in the motto from Rimbaud that Britten sets 3 times in the course of the cycle: 'I alone have the key to this savage parade'. That was the privilege and responsibility Britten felt was the artist's destiny in life: to see what others could not, to say what society and convention suggested he shouldn't, to be an outsider in some existential sense, yet able to express the deeper and often darker emotional truths that surge under the surface. Composed in 1939 as Britten crossed the Atlantic as a homosexual conscientious objector, the music of Les Illuminations has a coruscating power; here, in his mid-20s, is a composer who had triumphantly found his voice and who was beginning to realise who he was as a man and an artist, too.




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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Joseph Tambornino

    on 23 Nov 2013 02:21

    I was first introduced to Britten's music as a young teenager when I was asked to sing the part of Isaac in the second Canticle for a university student's doctoral recital. It was very strange to my young ears, but I was as much spellbound as I was puzzled by his music, the weaving of ancient medieval sonorities and text with something weirdly modern to my ear, but undeniably personal in a way I couldn't understand at that age. A few years later, a visiting chorus from one of the public universities in Wisconsin came to my high school and performed the Hymn to St Cecilia. Once more I was drawn deeply into a psychology I didn't fully comprehend but that so effectively combined mystery with alien beauty in a choral setting; I was hooked. A couple of years later brought me full circle when I had the very great privilege of singing with Sir Peter Pears in a concert of all the Canticles: once again, a shining, strange, intimate traversal across such various psychological territories. Britten's music has been an integral part of the fabric of my life ever since.

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