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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell, Opus 34 (1946)
Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, Opus 10 (1937)
Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia (Peter Grimes), Opus 33 (1945)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Rec October 1990, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London
WARNER APEX 0927 49423 2/1 [67.40]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

Paris: The Song of a Great City (1900)
In a Summer Garden (1909)
Brigg Fair (1907)
The Walk to the Paradise Garden (1907)
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912)
Summer Night on the River (1912)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Rec December 1992, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London
WARNER APEX 0927 49423 2/2 [77.21]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Overture: Cockaigne, Opus 40 (1901)
Introduction and Allegro, Opus 47 (1905)
Serenade for String Orchestra, Opus 20 (1892)
Enigma Variations, Opus 36 (1899)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Rec April 1991, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London
WARNER APEX 0927 49423 2/3 [74.25]
Gustav HOLST (1857-1934)

The Planets, Opus 32 (1916)
Egdon Heath, Opus 47 (1927)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Rec December 1993, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London
WARNER APEX 0927 49423 2/4 [74.07]
WARNER APEX 0927 49423 2/1-4


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Among the conductors of our time none has been a more consistent champion of English music than Andrew Davis (though Richard Hickox deserves equal praise). With the BBC Symphony Orchestra he performed contemporary music as well as maintaining the opportunities to hear the great composers from the national repertoire.

This bargain-priced collection of four CDs from Warner Apex is in many respects a tribute to Davis and his time with the BBC Orchestra. The playing is first-class, so too the recorded sound, while the interpretations can challenge the best. Added to that, the CDs come in a nicely produced presentation box, and there is a booklet which contains well written and quite substantial notes on all the music. As usual with Apex, however, the presentation of the printed material would benefit from a more thoughtful editorial touch, since neither the font, the print size, nor the layout (there is a lot of wasted space) make the task of the reader an easy one.

Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, otherwise known as Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, was written to a commission for a film explaining the instruments of the orchestra. It succeeds on every front, with a plan that takes the listener on a guided tour around the sections and instruments, yet still manages to be a strongly constructed piece which communicates a convincing expressive message. In other words, it is a masterpiece on every count, and when the Purcell theme (from Adalezar) comes back in clear at the end, it is a fulfilling moment. Another aspect of the music is that this is a concerto for orchestra, and the better the playing, both individually and collectively, the greater the rewards. The BBC Symphony Orchestra do themselves proud, while the recorded sound from St Augustine's Kilburn is warm and sonorous.

Frank Bridge was probably the most significant influence on the emerging genius of the young Britten, so it was fitting that the Variations on a Theme of Bridge should have been one of the works that confirmed Britten's stature. The score was composed in the late 1930s for the leading string ensemble of the day, the Boyd Neel Orchestra, so it is no surprise that virtuosity plays such a full part in the proceedings. But there is more too it than that; for in the hands of a great composer music in variation form tends to move the listener through the whole gamut of experiences. And while this is not a definitive performance, it is a very fine one.

The opera Peter Grimes can lay claim to being Britten's masterpiece, and is certainly one of the great operas of the 20th century. The orchestral interludes gathered for concert performance have long made their separate presence felt, and this recording is one of many. One of its virtues is the addition of a fifth interlude, the Passacaglia which serves in the opera as a character study of Grimes. It is a strongly constructed piece, the recurring theme deriving from his vocal outburst 'And may God have mercy upon me', but moving through the widest conceivable expressive range in one of the finest constructive achievements in all Britten's music. This performance meets all these demands and is hugely rewarding. So too are the better known Sea Interludes, which are nothing if not atmospheric of time and place.

The Delius collection is notable for the beautiful orchestral playing. For an immediate example of this, listen no further than the first few bars of that beautiful tone poem, In a Summer Garden. The dynamic shadings, the exquisite contrasting of strings and woodwinds, have never been done better. In fact this is particularly hard piece to bring off, since the music extends across more than fifteen minutes, without having a strong sense of quasi-symphonic purpose. In his ability to sustain and reconcile both the long-term view and the local detail, Davis gives a fine performance, aided considerably by the beautifully balanced recording.

Paris is a work that is bigger still, but the expressive concerns are quite different, and the music is more big-boned and opulent. Again the recorded sound is a bonus here, though Davis does not entirely succeed in dismissing lingering doubts that at more than twenty minutes, the music slightly outstays its welcome. It does always sound well, however.

There are no such doubts with the remainder of the programme, which includes a splendidly rich performance of Brigg Fair. This surely ranks as one of the best in the catalogue, showing off the masterly way that Delius uses an English folk song in variation form to make one of his biggest orchestral works. It is one of his most satisfying musical structures.

This performance of the wonderful orchestral interlude from the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, known as The Walk to the Paradise Garden, does not sound as expressively intense in its earlier stages as in Barbirolli's marvellous recording (EMI). However, Davis makes his point later by reaching to a fully sonorous climax, and he thus places special emphasis on the music's structure, one of its most satisfying features.

The disc is completed with those two well loved miniatures, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and Summer Night on the River. Here as elsewhere on this disc, the music gains from the quality of the orchestral playing and the sensitivity of the recorded sound.

Four of Elgar's best orchestral works are featured here. This reissue of 1991 performances was recently available separately, but without the Serenade for Strings. Then it was an attractive enough proposition, but now it is even better, of course. The orchestra clearly knows the music well and the conductor is among the leading Elgarians of our time.

The Cockaigne Overture always presents an orchestra with the opportunity to sound at its best, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra certainly does so, captured in warmly atmospheric sound which allows for the richly sonorous climaxes to make their mark. Davis makes excellent point of the musical range, articulating the rhythmic details crisply, while also giving due emphasis to the tender lyricism which lies at the opposite pole of this wonderful score.

While the Introduction and Allegro as conducted by Davis does not alter the position of Barbirolli's famous performance at the head of the field, it remains highly satisfactory. The dynamic shadings allow the range of the musical expression to be felt, and the sound of the strings is nothing if not pleasing.

The Serenade for String Orchestra may be a slighter piece than its illustrious companions gathered on this disc, but it is decidedly not to be underestimated. For the slow movement in particular is a powerfully expressive masterpiece, in many ways announcing that the young composer had come of age. And that is certainly how the music feels in Davis's performance, with the BBC strings at the top of their form.

The largest of the four works is the famous Enigma Variations. This is played with real freshness, the tempi always appropriately judged: the noble Nimrod variation comes over splendidly, for example. Perhaps the sound at climactic moments is not quite as full bodied as it might be, but the sweep of momentum in the closing stages is still compelling.

Holst's Planets is one of the great orchestral works, and one of the most often recorded. Davis therefore enters a competitive market place, but he and the orchestra need fear not, since theirs is a competitive product. The recording handles everything that Holst demands of it, which of course is considerable. The fact that the crucial organ contribution in Uranus was recorded separately - played by Andrew Davis himself at King's College, Cambridge - means that it was remixed into the equation by the engineers. This kind of technological conceit is by no means unusual, but this reviewer at least disapproves of it. Having said that, unless we were told, would we really know?

The Planets occupies the whole variety of Holst's musical personality, and this performance makes the most of the opportunities offered by this wonderful score. The powerful insistence of Mars contrasts with lightness of touch of Venus, while the mysticism of Neptune has never been heard to better effect in a recorded performance, as the ladies of the BBC Symphony Chorus meet the demands of keeping in tune. Uranus the Magician is not so dramatically urgent as some interpretations, but the music still compels the listener, as it does throughout.

Holst thought Egdon Heath his best piece, and it is hard to argue with its mastery, once one has come to terms with the austere idiom. Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra certainly have, and they maintain the standards of playing found elsewhere in this most appealing collection.

Terry Barfoot

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