Britten conducting Britten: A study of the recordings produced with John Culshaw
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Benjamin Britten, a prolific composer, was also a distinguished conductor and pianist, who frequently performed his own and other composers' works on stage and in the studio. John Culshaw, the legendary Decca record producer, persuaded Britten to conduct for the recordings of his own music. Culshaw had discovered the potential of stereophonic sound to create a theatrical atmosphere in opera recordings, and thus to project vivid images in the mind of the listener. Though he chose to record opera in the studio, for the technical perfection of the process, Culshaw designed stage movements and special effects to add the excitement and presence of the theatrical experience. Britten and Culshaw shared an ardent passion for music, and an unabashed perfectionism that would allow no compromise. Their collaborative stereo recordings of several operas and church parables, including Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Curlew River, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Burning Fiery Furnace, and Billy Budd are the apotheoses of recorded opera to this day. My dissertation examines the Britten-Culshaw stereo operatic recordings as dramatic aural works of art. It makes the case that only studio recordings designed specifically for that medium, such as Culshaw's operas and Glenn Gould's solo piano recordings, can qualify as audio artworks. It also argues that a composer's own studio recording can be a collaborative acoustic artwork, adding the important contributions of the musicians, producer, and the recording team. Culshaw was regarded by many as the most distinguished classical producer of his day. His insistence on producing stereo opera recordings as dramatic aural works of art, and to provide a listening experience quite distinct from that of live performance, set him apart from his contemporaries. Britten, for his part, deeply respected sound recording, and treated it as no less important than live performance. Examination of many first-hand sources proves that Britten's pursuit of perfection also reflected his intention to produce `authentic' or `authoritative' recordings of his music as the final products of his creation. A thorough analysis of Culshaw's stereophonic production notes for the1958 Decca stereo recording of Peter Grimes, unearthed from the Britten-Pears Library, revealed that every detail was discussed with Britten, including fifteen pages of instructions and diagrams for movements and effects, are a new and vital source for our understanding of Culshaw and Britten's collaboration, and for Culshaw's aesthetics of opera recording. The audience listens to an `audio drama of the opera,' with dramatic stage movements and a barrage of sound effects, and, thanks to Culshaw, forms moving visual images of the work.