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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge Op.10 (1937) [26.21]
Simple Symphony Op.4 (1933-34) [15.31]
Prelude and Fugue Op.29 (1943) [8.28]
Northern Sinfonia of England/Richard Hickox
Recorded at All Saints Quayside Church, Newcastle, 1987

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Originally recorded in 1987 and now reincarnated in Sanctuary’s Resonance series – in a very verdant livery as well – these are thoroughly recommendable traversals. Hickox is a practised exponent of the repertoire and the Northern Sinfonia proved then, as now, to be flexible and adroit interpreters. They also never lack for weight at climaxes and nor do they lack qualities of shading and power sufficient to characterise the Bridge Variations. So that’s a thumbnail sketch; time for a few specifics.

We hear in the Introduction and Theme of the Bridge one characteristic feature of the performance; its latent (later explicit) seriousness of purpose. To this we can add a strong expressive quotient in the Romance – plenty of subtle colouration and an almost elastic sense of the melody line – and the terrific way Hickox brings out the lower string writing in the Aria Italiana. It may not be quite as aerial as Britten’s own – or the classic Marriner/ASMIF – but you’ll seldom hear the guitar themes explored with as much witty panache as you’ll find here. The Waltz is nicely detailed; it’s very much a matter of taste but perhaps there might have been just a touch more breathing space but against that the humour is strongly intact. The final variations gather in depth and feeling; the black basses in the Funeral March contend with the high string writing for maximal effect and the Chant is properly haunting, the Mahlerian solemnity of the finale equally moving.

Coupled with the Variations is the pert Simple Symphony. Once again Hickox has its contours delineated. There’s a real spring in the Playful Pizzicato and in the Sentimental Sarabande one finds a youthful echo of Elgar’s smaller string pieces (it had never struck me before). To finish we have the most recent of the three pieces to be written, the 1943 Prelude and Fugue, which was written to celebrate the Boyd Neel Orchestra’s tenth anniversary (the orchestra had famously premiered the Bridge Variations in Salzburg in 1937). As befits that orchestra of virtuosos this is a difficult work to bring off satisfactorily but the Northern Sinfonia really tears at it. The part writing is tricky and the demands considerable but the results here are impressive.

The notes are concise and to the point. Sound quality is pretty good, though the church acoustic very occasionally obscures ultimate clarity, which can lead to a lack of real bloom to the string sound. But these are momentary distractions and you can certainly buy with confidence; these are fine, impressive and frequently exhilarating performances.

Jonathan Woolf


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