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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Canadian Carnival Op.19 (1939) [13:09]
Violin Concerto Op.15 (1939)a [33:09]
Mont Juic Op.12/Op.9 (1937) [12:03]
Lorraine McAslan (violin)a;
English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
rec. The Maltings, Snape, October 1990
NAXOS 8.557198 [58:19]


As is the case with several recent Britten discs from Naxos, these recordings were originally released by Collins Classics, and are now available again at bargain price.

Instrumental music was not Britten’s forte, although there are some noteworthy exceptions such as the Frank Bridge Variations, the Purcell Variations and the Sinfonia da Requiem; and one should not forget his beautiful orchestral song-cycles. The rarely heard Canadian Carnival is not likely to contradict this view of mine. I have never been able to warm to this rather trite piece of “musical jobbery”, to quote Nielsen’s phrase. The title suggests some sort of folksy romp ŕ la Copland, which the music never achieves in spite of the use of some folk songs (the well-known Alouette for example).

Britten’s concertos, too, do not qualify to be among his finest works, but I firmly believe that the Violin Concerto remains his finest essay in the genre, maybe because it does not aim at superficial, vacuous virtuosity, in the way the Piano Concerto does. The Violin Concerto is a mostly elegiac outpouring, sometimes close to Berg’s Violin Concerto or Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Structurally, it is laid-out in three parts with two weighty slow movements framing a devilish Scherzo. It is also more overtly symphonic in conception. The important and demanding violin part is integrated into the musical argument developed and sustained throughout with some remarkable stylistic consistency; something that cannot be said of the Piano Concerto. Lorraine MacAslan’s playing is superb throughout. She has the full measure of the emotional content and the technique to achieve it most satisfyingly. Hers is one of the finest readings that I have ever heard.

As is well known, Mont Juic was composed jointly by Britten and Berkeley who had met during the ISCM days in Barcelona where they heard the tunes used in this colourful suite. For quite a long time, the authorship of each movement remained concealed. Only much later did Berkeley confide to Peter Dickinson that the first two movements were “mostly by him”, whereas the other two were “mostly by Britten”. The suite as such is an enjoyable, unpretentious piece of superior light music, although the third movement is weightier and more serious in intent. Some will remember that Berkeley conducted an earlier recording of the piece for Lyrita (SRCS 50 nla) that remained the only one available for many long years.

The reservations that I have expressed do not in any way concern the actual performances. Quite the contrary, for it is good to have these fine readings available again. You need not hesitate if you do not know any of these pieces. This release is well worth having for MacAslan’s superbly poised, committed and convincing reading of the Violin Concerto alone.

Hubert Culot


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