Of the four "Britten Conducts Britten" box sets issued by Decca, this one might be titled "The Miscellaneous Works." These 10 CDs collect various choral works, the three Church Parables, and the massive War Requiem. While the beginning collector might be better off starting with the operas, the song cycles, or the orchestral works, true Britten fans are eventually going to want this set.
The discs themselves are well recorded, with those marvelous Decca sonics of the 1960s--neither arid acoustics nor too much reverb to spoil the recordings. The Church Parables and the War Requiem in particular benefit from Decca producer John Culshaw's approach to recording, which set out to use the acoustics of the recording studio as an integral part of the performance. Britten's conducting is masterly: few others match his command of his own works (really, only Colin Davis and--at times--Andre Previn come close), and most of the works were recorded with the artists for whom Britten wrote them.
The first three discs are the Church Parables--"The Burning Fiery Furnace," "Curlew River," and "The Prodigal Son"--in which Britten mixed together medieval mystery plays, Japanese No drama, and his own musical sensibilities into something utterly unique. The works are spare, using a tiny instrumental ensemble and a handful of vocalists; but, oddly, they are among Britten's most sensual works. The vocal lines are graceful in a way that even "Peter Grimes" is not. Even if the music is not "religious" in the traditional sense of the word, this awe-inspiring music in the most traditional sense of the word.
The set also includes much of the music Britten wrote for amateurs and children. Although Britten is often regarded as something of an expert in the writing of music for non-professional performers, these works aren't at the highest standards of his output. "The Children's Crusade" is simply naive (what was Britten doing with a Bertold Brecht text, anyway?), "The Golden Vanity" is twee and cloying, and "The Little Sweep" is saccharine and fey: he manages to reproduce the exact style and content of a Victorian fable for small children, with the sort of lesson that makes Disney morality look like Kant by comparison.
However, once we pass to discs 6-8, things look up again. Here we have a wide range of Britten's choral music, from the traditional English feel of "A Ceremony of Carols" to the almost Mahlerian excess of the "Spring Symphony" (and who else but Britten or Mahler would make a vocal symphony about spring one of their darker works?), many of which the average listener may be hearing for the first time. The "Cantata Academica" is particularly delightful.
The set concludes with the massive "War Requiem," which I suspect many people will already own. Enough has been written about this particular recording (it is the original 1963 version with Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Galina Visknevskaya) that nothing more need be said. Except, perhaps, that this includes set includes the rehearsal extracts from the recording session released with the last remastering of the recording. These reveal Britten to be a passionate and witty conductor, the sort many musicians would hope to have leading them.
This is an expensive set, but for the Britten fanatic and the Britten fan it will become indispensable. It reveals a side of the composer different from the opera composer, and a side well worth knowing. This set is highly recommended.