The 1967 Decca recording produced by John Culshaw at Orford Church in Suffolk features in a black and white documentary film made by Tony Palmer and Humphrey Burton and narrated by Culshaw himself. The film was screened at the Rest is Noise Britten Weekend today.
The film explains Culshaw’s recording techniques producing Britten’s Burning Fiery Furnace in stereo and combines a typically meticulous and often low-key Britten working with key musical personalities in his circle. Osian Ellis, percussionist James Blades (his pieces to camera are at times quite creepy although his repeated reference to ‘Mr Britten’ and his smart turnout are rather charming) plus a young Keith Majoram (later principle bass in the English Symphony Orchestra) all feature.
Culshaw’s voice-over is bullishly unequivocal at times in what later in the film seems like quite an over-sensitive defence of his methods. He’s clear on who the record’s target audience is saying at one point that his work is about ‘making recordings for people who really listen’.
Thank God for the high-end production techniques he did employ. Yes, he may not have been producing for maximum reach (there’s a point made about how most speakers wouldn’t have been able to play the record to the level of quality the opera was recorded at), but in terms of longevity and authoritativeness, it’s a great historical record.
Also revealing was the sequence featuring local residents and a shopkeeper whose indignant disregard for the ‘visitors’ to Orford was reflected in the film makers cutting to a static shot of a totally silent and empty village centre just as one shopkeeper complained about the significant increase in traffic during a recording session. The tension between local resident and ‘them London people’ still exists nearly 50 years later.