Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Theme & Variations: Various British Composers

Variations on an Elizabethan Theme
(1953) [16.21]
Imogen HOLST (1907-84), Arthur OLDHAM (?1930-), Michael TIPPETT (1905-98), Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89), Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76), Humphrey SEARLE (1915-82), William WALTON (1902-83)
Severn Bridge Variations (1966) [18.54]

Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-), Alun HODDINOTT (1929-), Nicholas MAW (1935-), Daniel JONES (1912-97), Grace WILLIAMS (1906-77), Michael TIPPETT(1905-98)
Variations on 'Sumer is icumen in' (1987) [19.59]

Oliver KNUSSEN (1952-), Robert SAXTON (1953-), Robin HOLLOWAY (1943-), Judith WEIR (1954-), Alexander GOEHR (1932-), Colin MATTHEWS (1946-), David BEDFORD (1937-)

BBC SO/Jac van Steen
rec. 2/4/5. 3. 99, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London
NMC D062 [55.45]
Crotchet   £11.99  AmazonUK   AmazonUS

It's been a feature of post-war, early Arts-Council and other Fifties aesthetics to take a little of that socialist community spirit and turn it into commissions. The first of these, from 1953, has an obvious provenance, though not an obvious source. The composers provided with degrees of expectation and mild surprise an attractive set of variations. It's only not known because as Alan Bush might say, bourgeois individualism has triumphed!

Britten corralled five composers to help in a set of variations on an Irish tune in Sellinger's Round as set for keyboard by Byrd. Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (1953) is a work for full strings. Imogen Holst sets the pace in a transparent setting, in her more public vein, not too inflected with jollity. Britten pupil, Arthur Oldham, sets the violin to the main theme in a work attractive enough to prompt us to ask more about him. The Tippett is a slow four minute meditation, quoting Purcell's Dido's 'Ah Belinda!' as an act of kinship to Britten. The Berkeley is a more toughly argued piece and Britten is out of 'Green Leaves We Are' from Gloriana. Fast. Rawsthorne and Rubbra declined Britten's invitation to contribute. But Searle was then asked. Searle's isn't the Searle we know, but a more tonally reflective one, rustling towards Schoenberg very occasionally. Walton's is the gem, the finale wrapping up the theme in a fuga a la gigue, bringing back the theme then a quote from his own Portsmouth Point - all coruscation of strings and rapid development.

The Severn Bridge Variations (1966) are altogether later and tougher, with composers from Wales and the West Country (Arnold living then in Cornwall) predominating as you'd expect from the title. They use the full orchestra. Arnold takes it away in a slow and fine theme, not characteristic of what the commissioners might have expected. It sounds like a fine dirge, modally inflected. Suddenly Arnold varies it himself, with typical touches of orchestration to hurry the sudden increase of tempo, nothing drastic, but a glinting of the contemporary - ending in a rather solemn canon. Arnold slightly on the defensive here, avoiding easy tagging. Hoddinott's is challenging, slow again, with careful tolling use of brass and percussion starting quietly and rising to small climaxes and followed by small scurries. Touches of celesta and horn make this memorable and wholly characteristic, ending in a forte. Maw's piece is a brooding with similar orchestral forces. It erupts into a scurrying nocturnal scherzo full of chirping menace and real dark imaginings; the world of Fuseli that Ferneyhough later explored. Terrific. The Jones comes as little relief, sounding a little like one of his symphonic sections in a development section, arguing with a honed rhetoric from the basic motifs. This fleet post-Cheltenham style fits well with the younger composers here. Williams is placed at this point as a rhapsodic and inspired quiet relief to the preceding. It's a fine melodic variation on the theme, a chorale prelude with march theme; perhaps more melodically inspired than anything else, and there's a high standard. Brass gently ruminate, and the brass band and more Williams/sea-type evocations emerge. One does recall the very fine Sea Sketches of 1944. Tippett provides a spectral and beautifully marimaba'd nocturne, with heterophonic doublings out of King Priam, sped with the post-Symphony No. 2 world, and a worthy chip from it. It's a real conclusion, and yet again the whole is cumulative and cohesive.

Variations on Sumer is icumen in (1987) is gentler than you'd expect, even given the roster of composers, predominantly post-romantic and post-Darmstadt. Oliver Knussen creates transparent textures, full of his characteristic manic miniaturism, then playfully darkens them with a full quotation. Saxton's fits very nearly and fleetingly into this, in the same post-romantic vein, quoting the theme in a powerful scherzo. But nothing prepares us for the full-blown romanticism of the Holloway - gloriously ripe and with a terrific take on the melody, performing the same service as the Williams earlier. The Weir is melodic too, playful as the theme suggests, full of June and playful ironies. Textures - and tonal qualities - are peculiarly refined here. Sophisticated sunglasses in Arcady. Nothing is quite what it seems. One expects something to twist the plot. The kind of music to Love's Labours Lost in its quieter moments you'd expect from her. The real surprise is the meditation by Goehr, a long piece (six minutes), of pastorally-accented largo, owning just something of the 12-tone language in its underpinning; but much modified. It allows him an expansiveness we only find in some of his slow movements. It reminded me of the world of the Symphony with Chaconne. It's a slightly more modern antistrophe to the Holloway. And it puzzled everyone at the first performance, as well it might. He included it as a triptych in Still Lands in 1990, learning something from it. Colin Matthews is far less compromising and produces a scherzo-like piece out of Sun's Dance, a real blast of toughness at the right point; Matthews single-handedly proved the scherzo wasn't dead in the 1980s. Using pianissimo scurryings it builds up to a quiet manic climax and subsides. Bedford's piece is again tougher and more drum-laden than his other pieces prepares us for. The melody is turned to a Bedford peroration, but more hard-won, and refrained with a set of miniature variations that come full circle, mating like the swallows flickering round the art work, as it were, with the Knussen opening.

A brave broadening venture from NMC, as it doesn't quite cater for contemporary aficionados. Excellent notes from Bayan Northcott, who pleads for the new generation to be so commissioned - perhaps possible with the Arts Council shake-up, abolition of the fractured regional budget, so full of in-fighting. So long as the money doesn't flow from bureaucracy to treasury.

Simon Jenner

Peter Grahame Woolf has also listened to this disc

This disc of collaborative variations (19 composers, 20 tracks) harks back to Diabelli's fruitful notion in 1819; it might prove hard going to listen to all his 49 'other' variations! Recorded in 1998, NMC's collection features 3 sets of variations (two previously unrecorded) with contributions from 19 British composers listed alphabetically. The audiences were invited to guess the composers in 1953 & 1987 & I likewise list them alphabetically. No-one got them all right at Aldeburgh in 1953, and the1987 audience there was greatly puzzled by Alexander Goehr's untypical offering.

You should recognise Tippett's (recycled in his Divertimento to Britten's chagrin, we are told). Tippett's two and Britten's single offering stand out; Britten was the unparalleled master of functional, occasional music which has lived on.

They are well played and recorded and could make a useful Christmas gift for a music quiz. Inevitably it is a diet of morsels, only Goehr, Tippett & Williams scoring over 4½ mins (there's a clue!). The notes are voluminous and describe every piece, which I shall not duplicate. There are also useful photos with 'brief lives' of each composer represented and lists of composers left out and some of the new generation who might continue the tradition at a future Festival.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: