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Britten: Spring Symphony; Welcome Ode; Psalm 150

Britten / Gale / Southend Boys Choir / Hickox
Release Date: 07/30/2013 
Label:  Chandos   Catalog #: 10782   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Alfreda HodgsonElisabeth GaleMartyn Hill
Conductor:  Richard Hickox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony OrchestraLondon Symphony ChorusSouthend Boys Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN Spring Symphony 1. Welcome Ode 2. Psalm 150 3 Richard Hickox, cond; 1 Elisabeth Gale (sop); 1 Alfreda Hodgson (alt); 1 Martyn Hill (ten); 1 Southend Boys’ Ch; 2 Read more class="ARIAL12">Senior Ch of City of London School & School for Girls; 3 Junior Ch of City of London School & School for Girls CHANDOS 10782 (58:48 Text and Translation)

Every so often, the passing of a conductor—particularly one I admire—affects me emotionally. I don’t think that anyone else’s death hit me quite as hard as those of Rudolf Kempe and Klaus Tennstedt, but Richard Hickox was certainly one of the finest British conductors of his time. I can’t recall ever having heard a Hickox performance or recording that didn’t grab me, and so I asked to review two of his more famous and exceptional discs that have now come out in the “Classic Chandos” series.

The performance of the Britten Spring Symphony is a perfect case in point. From the very first notes, Hickox creates an atmosphere of the sort that Britten loved yet which so few conductors seem able to pull off, and the music grabs one as it changes and morphs. Nothing in this performance sounds perfunctory or left to chance; everything is the work of a dedicated and serious musician, someone who cares more about presenting the work as a whole unit, complete in all its parts, every detail tended to and brought out, than in saying to the world “Listen to my interpretation of this work.” That being said, I was less than happy with the fluttery, indistinct timbres of soprano Gale and mezzo Hodgson and their equally indistinct diction. As a counterbalance, tenor Hill has not only a splendid, clear voice but also exceptionally fine pronunciation. For that matter, even the Southend Boys’ Choir has better diction than the two women. In some of their later solos, when the music is slower, quieter, and less high in their upper registers, the two women pronounce their words a little better, but as soon as they ascend the scale those problems beset them once again. (In “Fair and Fair,” we have the opportunity to hear both Hill and Gale singing essentially the same words. His are all clear and understandable; hers are all garbled, lost in the sea of vocal flutter.)

Now here’s the interesting thing about this disc: I’ve never liked the Spring Symphony nearly as much as other Britten works of the same vintage, but the way Hickox conducts it, you’d think it was the product of white-hot inspiration. Nowhere is that more evident than in the work’s complex, polyphonic finale, in which soloists, chorus, and orchestra play against each other in a rising crescendo of sound.

The following Welcome Ode was written in 1976 to celebrate the Queen’s visit to the Corn Exchange in Ipswich—scarcely an inspiring event in the best of conditions, yet the music is full of wonderful effects, both choral and (especially) instrumental, incorporating a jig and “roundel.” Clearly, the aging and terminally ill Britten had one last fling of fun in composing this piece, intended for a “young people’s chorus and orchestra,” and it shows. Lacking the darkness of some of his late works, you’d never think this was Britten’s last composed piece. Hickox’s performance fairly bursts at the seams with energy, giving us an unexpectedly splendid reading of this work.

The disc closes with the Psalm 150, composed after the War Requiem. This is a slight work, not just in size (five and a half minutes) but also in themes and musical treatment. Yet again, Hickox is having a ball conducting it and the enjoyment is infectious (listen particularly to the syncopated passages near the end). All in all, a surprisingly good disc of what one may consider not quite top-tier Britten works—the kind of record that really does make you appreciate what we lost when Richard Hickox passed away.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Spring Symphony, Op. 44 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Alfreda Hodgson (Alto), Elisabeth Gale (Soprano), Martyn Hill (Tenor)
Conductor:  Richard Hickox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra,  London Symphony Chorus,  Southend Boys Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1949; England 
Language: English 
Welcome Ode, Op. 95 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Richard Hickox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1976; England 
Psalm 150, Op. 67 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Richard Hickox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1962; England 

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