Today is an important day…

As the Ferryman in Benjamin Britten’s Opera “Curlew River” puts it, “Today is an important day”.

For today would have been Britten’s 101st birthday. Exactly one year ago today, I was settling down at the back of the Maltings Concert Hall, Snape for the Centenary concert (and a good one it was, too!) Twenty-six years ago, I was settling down in my seat at the Wigmore Hall for his 75th anniversary concert. And thus it has often been for more than half my life: today is spent playing pretty much nothing but Britten from dawn to dusk, and we pray that ToH thinks to do the vacuuming tomorrow rather than today!

Birthdays are for giving, of course (as I constantly have to remind ToH!) In this case, I’ve decided to release version 1.3 of Churchill, which has now been tested for, and, for standalone, RAC, RAC+Data Guard and 12c Cloud Control installations. I’ve also taken the opportunity to tidy things up a lot, so necessary files are housed more appropriately, rather than all being plonked into a single directory. There are some more documentation issues that arise as a result of the clean-up, but those are relatively minor and should be done by tomorrow. Assuming I am not made to do the vacuuming tomorrow as penance…

Update 25th November: Beware of birthday gifts bought in a hurry! The new 1.3 ISO of Churchill was missing a key file (the ksh RPM), without which all attempts to run the root scripts at the end of a Grid Infrastructure install would fail. Oops. Now corrected (without incrementing the version number again: call it “1.3 Update 1” if you like… Microsoft can be such an inspiration!).


Mention of my copy of the original 1944 recording of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (see last post) prompted me to search the archives for reviews of it when it was first released. I therefore came across the Gramophone Notes from the December 1945 Spectator archive:

I haven’t chuckled quite so much in a while! Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is “much over-rated”, apparently. And Britten’s Serenade itself is merely “a welcome novelty”. So much for being on the wrong side of history!

But what tickled me the most was the way that the OCR technology used to turn a 65 year-old magazine article into a web page had failed at a crucial moment: the renowned conductor, Sir Adrian Boult, being memorably transfigured into the much sleezier-sounding Sir Adrian Bonk. (You may need to be aware of the apparently peculiarly British English meaning of this word to fully appreciate the reason for my quiet merriment when reading that).

I have provided feedback to the Spectator, so it’s possible that error may be corrected by the time you read this. I can’t help feeling it shouldn’t be, though! In any event, I have preserved my copy of Sir Adrian Bonk’s contribution to gramophone history for posterity’s sake!

Brittenish Art

I am aware that Salisbury documentation for 12c has been promised, along with a series on how to do tape virtualization …and neither have yet to materialize. I blame the pressures of work… and the fact that, my complete works of Benjamin Britten having arrived, I’ve been busy ripping them.

On this occasion, getting the ripping right means, essentially, two things: first, the rip must be as accurate (and lossless) as possible. For me, this has usually meant ripping with something like Exact Audio CD. But, though I’ve been a paid-for customer for years, I’ve only recently just worked out that dbPoweramp also does secure, validated rips, as good as anything EAC is able to do. It also happens to do them in a much less peculiar way than EAC, so that’s the tool I’ve been using this time. Works a treat.

Second, I’ve been making sure to get the CD artwork right, as much as possible. I hadn’t realised that this was an issue before, but the Complete Works CD set comes with a hardback book that includes some 47 pieces of artwork for the original LPs as they were released through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Not every piece of artwork is present, and they’re printed in such a dark, matte way that they’re not often useful in and of themselves… but they made me realise (or remember) that there was a time when LPs came with expressive artwork that told you something about the contents… and that when CDs came out, they quite often didn’t.

Take just one example. When I re-bought Britten’s Turn of the Screw in about 1989, here’s what the CD box set looked like:

Well, it’s an interesting picture of Benjamin Britten at around the right sort of time (he composed the opera in about 1954) and you at least get to know that the contents are something called “the turn of the screw”, even if you happen to be allergic to the incorrect use of all-lower case. But you certainly wouldn’t know from that lot what a spooky ghost story the opera happens actually to be.

Courtesy of the Complete Works hardback book, I learned that this was actually the LP artwork that was used when the piece was originally issued on Long Play vinyl:

It’s clearly a cover of its time, but at least you get to know who’s singing -and the photographs appear to be from the opera’s first production, which makes them interesting in their own right. You also get to know the opera’s about a ghostly male figure outside a leaded window and looking like he wants to get in; a panicked woman inside and looking like she’s prefer to be out; and an innocent child at prayer is clearly involved in it somewhere along the line. All in all, it’s a far more informative LP cover than we CD-buyers got landed with in the 1980s.

As it happens, when I first bought this LP set (from a music store in Cambridge in about 1983), the thing came with this cover:

Clearly a product of the late sixties, it manages nevertheless still to tell you who’s doing the singing and playing …and that there’s a principle female character, two wild characters somehow related to a spooky country house and two kids standing, literally (and one guesses metaphorically, too), in their shadow… it’s still a hell of a lot more informative than the “modern” CD cover. It’s also more attractive.

As another for-example: Here’s what Billy Budd looked like when Decca bought it out on CD:

So you might figure that it involves a young boy, someone in a flat cap, a guy in a sweater who looks a bit like Benjamin Britten (for it is he) -and the continuing inability to use case properly.

Here’s the LP cover I got when I bought the same piece 30 years ago:

So now it’s a bit clearer that it has something to do with the 18th century, naval vessels, a court martial -and that Glossop, Pears and Langdon and others are singing in it, with the LSO conducted by Britten himself doing the playing. We’re apparently now suffering from a bad case of all upper case, but I nevertheless know which version I find more useful (as well as more visually appealing).

I could go on, but I will spare you the details. The short version is that I’ve spent three weeks or so trying to get hold of the “correct” imagery for each piece contained within the Complete Works set… and it’s sometimes very difficult, if not outright impossible.

Where there are two or more versions (as with the Turn of the Screw covers shown above), I’ve gone with the one I remember being on the LPs I purchased or borrowed from the library all those years ago, even if they happen not to be the truly “original” ones that were used when the LP was released for the very first time. But for some works, there doesn’t appear to be any good, original artwork that I can track down: if you happen to have an original LP of the Sechs Hölderlin Fragmente or the Poets Echo for example, I’d be very grateful for a scanned copy of them. I’ve made do with “something appropriate” from time to time, too: Britten’s version of “God Save the Queen” was never released on LP in the first place (so far as I know)… so I’ve nabbed a photo of the Queen opening the Maltings Concert Hall in 1967, at which it was definitely played. Similarly, I can find no original release of the Welcome Ode in 1977 …so I’ve used a photograph of the Ipswich Corn Exchange, which is where the first performance took place. And so on.

The artwork I used for the 1944 historic recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is of the first disk of my own copy (as in the thumbnail image that starts this entire blog piece)… one of my more prized possessions, up there with Nixon’s Vice Presidential signature and my Maria Callas signed photo.

As it is, I have ended up with mostly-suitable artwork for everything in the set: to spare me having to do it ever again, and in case there are Britten fans out there who might want to take a shortcut, this zip file contains all the artwork I could ferret out. It’s still not perfect, but it’s better than what I started with …and now that the ripping’s been done to my satisfaction, perhaps it’s time to turn back to Salisbury and tape changers!


In case I haven’t previously made it obvious, 2013 is the 100th birthday of the composer Benjamin Britten, whose music moves me more than any other.

Lots of things are happening this year to mark the occasion -including what looks like a brilliant exhibition at the British Library which runs until the end of July (and which I shall therefore miss).

In addition, the Royal Mint is promising to release a 50p piece in his honour later this year, and I’m in the queue to buy one. Meanwhile, Decca have re-released all their recordings of his music (usually under his baton), and have collaborated with a bunch of other labels to get their hands on recordings of pieces they never quite got around to recording themselves. The results are the new Decca Britten Complete Works collection of 66 CDs pictured here.

I have just signed up for a shipment, though I believe I have every one of his works already, with the sole exception of his Op. 75, Voices for Today (which I’ve heard, and didn’t much like). Nevertheless, the new set is worth getting because Decca have re-engineered the War Requiem recordings from 1966. The original CD transfer was very good, but a little “hissy”, and I shall be interested to hear whether the new engineering is significantly better or worse.

Delivery is due mid-July (for a suspiciously low £3.85), so I am looking forward to that immensely.

I hear the BBC are broadcasting live from Aldeburgh (Britten’s home town) on the night of November 22nd (the actual birth-date), which is interesting because we’re going to be in Aldeburgh that evening and I wasn’t aware of any concerts we could book. I shall have to look again.

If I had several million pounds to spare, I think a few of them would be easily spent on a manuscript score of Peter Grimes. I’d love to hire the London Symphony Orchestra for a couple of hours, too, to conduct the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and the Peter Grimes Sea Interludes. Will never happen, of course… but a man can dream.

If you don’t know any of Britten’s music, I energetically urge you to listen to some of it (Op. 33, Op. 16, Op. 31, Op. 71, Op. 64, Op. 50, Op. 88 and Op. 93 come particularly recommended). It is strange, wonderful, technically superb stuff. It challenges, but never insults. It is generous and repays listening with compound interest. I would never want to live without Bach or Stravinsky, but I would never want to have been born into a world without Britten, either.

That time of the year again

November 22nd is Saint Cecilia’s Day (patron saint of music) and, by lucky happenstance, also the anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten -England’s greatest-ever composer.

In times past, no music would have been played today in the Diznix household that wasn’t written by Britten… but this year has been an exception. I confess to some Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams!

Nevertheless: Happy Birthday, Ben.

Another year…

Once again, it’s time to celebrate the birthday of Benjamin Britten (he would have been 97 today).

Unfortunately, I must do my celebrating confined to bed, since I have the muscle aches and gripes one usually associates with influenza (but which is probably just a 24-hour niggle-thing).

Anyway, at least I get to listen to plenty of the master’s music this year! So, happy birthday, Ben!