Notes and Editorial Reviews
BRITTEN Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Simple Symphony. Lachrymae.1 Two Portraits. Elegy for Strings • Terje Tønnesen, cond; 1Catherine Bullock (va); Camerata Nordica • BIS 2060 (SACD: 81:04)
Last year’s centenary celebration was a boon for admirers of the music of Benjamin Britten. There were a flood of anniversary editions, including the omnibus set offered by
Decca of all of Britten’s acknowledged mature works culled primarily from its catalog of composer-led recordings, a number of fine War Requiem recordings—it was the work’s 50th anniversary—and a variety of excellent opera and vocal releases. Recordings of the orchestral repertoire appeared less often; most were re-releases. In that context alone, this release, coming at the tail end of the observance, may be among the most important. Here are new recordings of three of the composer’s remarkable early string orchestra works, a string arrangement of a 1950 composition for viola and piano made by Britten in his last year, and a world premiere recording of a precocious Elegy for Strings. The performances are extraordinary, at times even revelatory, which only adds to the value and appeal.
The Elegy was composed when the composer was 14, one of a large number of juvenile works just beginning to be explored. Found among the many manuscripts that predate the Sinfonietta, op. 1, the first acknowledged work in Britten’s canon, it was written in 1928, soon after he began his studies with Frank Bridge. It offers only hints of the mature style that was to develop under his teacher’s tutelage. Still, while the young Britten created a work more energetic than elegiac, and left a few rough edges, it is a remarkably accomplished piece, notable for the skill and richness of the writing for strings, and for the showy but deftly worked-out climax scored in 22 separate parts.
Within two years he was writing the virtuoso Two Portraits, showing especially in the highly chromatic portrait of school friend David Layton the influence not only of Bridge, but of some of the great Modernists of this period, all integrated into a rapidly solidifying compositional voice. The second, an introspective self-portrait, is suffused by the warm expressiveness of the solo viola—Britten’s instrument—made all the more touching by the soloist and ensemble’s understatement. Simple Symphony was composed in 1933–34, utilizing material written when the composer was between the ages of 10 and 13. Camerata Nordica has dug deeply into this deceptively naïve work, finding levels of dignity and quicksilver wit that even the composer in his 1968 recording doesn’t quite match. Note the airy fleetness of the “Boisterous Bourree,” the way the molto pesante of the “Playful Pizzicato” is made droll by the slowing of the tempo, and the uncommonly wistful “Sentimental Saraband.” I don’t know a more captivating performance.
The same can be said for the Swedish ensemble’s rendition of Britten’s masterpiece of this period, the 1937 Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Each movement of Britten’s tribute to his teacher is perfectly characterized: refined, or earthy, or vivacious, or darkly somber, with tempos perfectly judged, timing and phrasing managed as by the most perceptive of string quartets. In fact, the conductor-less ensemble, led by its principal violinist, is exactly like an oversize quartet of impulsive vitality, seemingly limitless energy, humor, pathos, and distinctive expression, exploiting the full dynamic range of the small string orchestra—15 to 22 players—from the most ethereal pianissimos to unexpectedly searing fortissimos. The tone is brighter and the orchestral sound more transparent than is the norm for these pieces, but this works to the advantage of the music, revealing felicities of scoring and counterpoint that can too easily pass unnoticed. The BIS engineers place the ensemble in a life-like space in both stereo and multichannel playback.
All this serves the haunting Lachrymae, the one mature work on the disc, particularly well. In Fanfare 35:2, I called Edward Gardner’s Chandos recording of these Reflections on a Song by Dowland “devastating,” but Camerata Nordica has surpassed it. In fact, haunting does little justice to the atmosphere the ensemble achieves in the opening, and its pacing and shaping of the emergence, at the end, of the theme to these variations, Dowland’s If My Complaints Could Passions Move, calls to mind the transfixing pain and ecstatic expectation of a childbirth. Catherine Bullock’s artless spinning of that melody is peace at the end of travail. Brilliant, and urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
The Benjamin Britten 100th birthday year couldn’t have been a tougher one for fans and collectors of the composer’s music: how to choose from (or pay for) the tons of tempting recordings, from re-packaged boxed set reissues to new performances, often containing previously unpublished, unheard, unrecorded works? Well, here’s another one guaranteed to discombobulate your budget. From Sweden’s Camerata Nordica come these sonically vibrant, technically poised, musically captivating performances of Britten works for string orchestra, from the classic Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Simple Symphony, and Lachrymae (in the late version for viola and strings), to the lesser-known Two Portraits and the apparently previously unrecorded Elegy for Strings.
Besides Britten’s matchless recording of the Bridge Variations on Decca with the English Chamber Orchestra, my previous, closely competing reference was the one by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta on Channel Classics, which is nearest to the composer’s in sheer dynamic intensity and what you would describe as “technicolor” string effects if there were such a thing (read review here). This one travels in the same lauded company, with similarly dynamic, authoritative direction and gritty, spontaneous, extroverted orchestral playing–and, importantly, presented in sound that (as with the Channel Classics recording) may “knock you sideways” (to use one of Britten’s own expressions). One example is in the “March” movement, where the brief bursts of pizzicato seem to jump out and pluck you on the ear (the same applies to the longer pizzicato passages in the Lachrymae). String timbres are as realistic and ensemble presence is as immediate as recordings can convey them. Other highlights of the Bridge Variations are the “Wiener Walzer”, where Terje Tønnesen and his players perfectly capture the movement’s delightfully profane, vulgar character, and the “Funeral March”, with its profoundly spooky low strings’ relentless, insistent chant of doom.
The Simple Symphony is masterfully done–and it features what may be the most faithful-to-the-score rendition of the “Playful Pizzicato” movement on disc, and that includes Britten’s own version. Tønnesen takes the composer’s marking of “molto pesante” in the movement’s Trio section fully to heart, not just by playing “heavier” but making the heaviness even more effective by slowing the tempo–a valid interpretive decision that also makes the contrast between the movement’s two sections even more dramatic–and memorable. Violist Catherine Bullock’s rendition of Lachrymae reminds us again of what a fine work this is–and she returns in the second of the so-called Two Portraits for string orchestra, pieces Britten wrote when he was 17. These are remarkably sophisticated works that, similar in concept but completely different in musical invention from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, refer to a friend and to the composer himself (the one with the viola solo–the viola was Britten’s instrument).
Finally, the Elegy for Strings, which isn’t mentioned in any of the relatively recent biographical sources but was apparently written in 1928 when the composer was 14, gets its first recording. At nearly eight minutes, it’s yet another astonishing example of the prodigious conceptual and technical musical talent that would continue to blossom and mature over the next decades, culminating in works such as the War Requiem and The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice. Tønnesen and his orchestra expertly polish every surface of the score’s grand gestures and more refined utterances, with their hints of Grieg, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Elgar, hinged to the ever-wondrous, always-unconventional influence of Bridge.
If you’re a serious Britten collector you will have most of these works already–likely more than one version; but you won’t have them all. And you won’t have better performances, nor will you experience them in more vivid, vibrant, life-like sound. A careful listen to this generous 81-minute program yields an easy recommendation and ensures this disc a place among the Britten year’s outstanding releases.
-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 by Benjamin Britten
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1937; England
Simple Symphony for Strings, Op. 4 by Benjamin Britten
Written: 1933-1934; England
Portraits (2) by Benjamin Britten
Catherine Bullock (Viola)
Period: 20th Century
Lachrymae for Viola and Strings, Op. 48a by Benjamin Britten
Catherine Bullock (Viola)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1950/1976; England
Elegy for Strings by Benjamin Britten
Period: 20th Century
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Introduction and Theme
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 1: Adagio
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 2: March
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 3: Romance
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 4: Aria Italiana
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 5: Bouree Classique
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 6: Wiener Waltzer
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 7: Moto Perpetuo
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 8: Funeral March
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 9: Chant
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10: Variation 10: Fugue and Finale
Simple Symphony, Op. 4: I. Boisterous Bouree
Simple Symphony, Op. 4: II. Playful Pizzicato
Simple Symphony, Op. 4: III. Sentimental Sarabande
Simple Symphony, Op. 4: IV. Frolicsome Finale
2 Portraits: No. 1. David Layton: Poco presto
2 Portraits: No. 2. E.B.B.: Poco lento
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