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Divertimentos & Sinfoniettas
Michael TIPPETT
(1905-1998)
Divertimento for Chamber Orchestra "Sellinger’s Round" (1953) [19:36]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)

Divertimento for Chamber Orchestra (1961-62) [11:35]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Sinfonietta Op.1 (1932) [14:46]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)

Sinfonietta Op.34 (1950) [12:36]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)

Sinfonietta No.1 Op.48 * (1955) [9:53]
English Chamber Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
* London Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
rec. March 1977, Kingsway Hall (Tippett, Rawsthorne, Britten, Berkeley); 6 September 1978, Watford Town Hall (Arnold). ADD
LYRITA SRCD257 [68:31]



To start this CD come two not-just-high-jinks divertimentos. You wouldn’t expect ‘A Lament’ within a Divertimento yet Tippett’s has one for its second movement (tr. 2), based on Purcell’s Dido’s first aria, ‘Ah Belinda, I am pressed with torment’. The theme is on the violas, Purcell’s ground bass on cellos and double basses and above this a solo violin traces elements of Sellinger’s Round but this and the haunting violins’ filigree work seem more like an expressive psychological hinterland of the Purcell original. The rest of the work arguably takes the concept of Divertimento to bullish extremes, but the opening movement is vivid and arresting, beginning with a vigorous adaptation for strings of the eighth of Gibbons’ 3-part Fantasias before oboe, clarinet and bassoon offer a lusty, outdoor treatment of Byrd’s version of Sellinger’s Round (tr. 1 1:03) and then Gibbons and Byrd coalesce on trumpet and strings. By the finale (tr. 5) the Round is a frivolous flute throwaway but you can enjoy Sullivan’s ‘I have a song to sing, O’ on clarinet (0:59) offset by zany companions. Del Mar is sensitive and robust as appropriate.
 
Much of Rawsthorne’s Divertimento, this CD’s most open-air piece, is also surprisingly thoughtful, but this is satisfying. You can have your fun but realize it’s only part of the rounded picture. So his opening breezy Rondo has a first episode (tr. 6 0:56) which says ‘ponder awhile’ after which the rondo, nonchalantly returning via cello solo, can be more confident and lead to trenchant declaration. Even then it calms down, allowing the episode to return, only to be quickly dismissed at the close.
 
The second movement Lullaby (tr. 7) is harmonically on the cool side yet heartfelt. Woodwind sing over muted strings and when the first violins take over the theme in upper register it has a rather spectral sheen. The Jig finale (tr. 8) blazes brilliantly, with a notable contribution from horns con forza. Yet even here a distinctive and distinguished contrast comes with a reflective viola solo from 1:29, especially when latterly it goes soulfully into upper register. Again Del Mar’s performance catches both moods vividly.
 
This CD’s sinfoniettas also come packed with incident and contrast. What I find striking about Britten’s Sinfonietta is its built-in and continuing drama, of a kind not found in the other pieces on this CD. I believe this is the first recording of the 1936 version including small string orchestra rather than the original 1932 string quintet. At least the string texture is much thinner in the 1995 Nash Ensemble recording (Helios CDH 55225) of the original version. The opening working up of a dramatic outcry works better in Del Mar’s account. But there’s still the contrast of calm, terse lyricism (tr. 9 0:51) from clarinet, oboe and then more extended on flute. This is likely, however, to be forgotten in the sheer adrenalin of the closing gradual increase of tempo to an emphatic climax.
 
I compared the whole work with what is claimed as the first recording of the string orchestra version, made in 1998 by the Halle Orchestra/Kent Nagano (Elatus 0927 46718 2). Here are the comparative timings.

 

Timings
I
II
III
Total
Del Mar
3:52
6:44
4:09
14:46
Nagano
4:16
6:16
4:04
14:37
 
Nagano’s string texture is slightly denser but Del Mar’s is closer miked and more analytical. The slower Nagano brings more expressive nuance to the first movement’s lyrical material. Del Mar is more objective but obtains more dramatic momentum by maintaining the tempo. Nagano is more sensitive in catching the lontano double bass (Del Mar’s is at 2:42) and the following stealthy pp cellos and violas’ pizzicato but Del Mar’s climax is more exciting.
 
The second theme of the first movement (tr. 9 1:15) is the basis of the second movement Variations. In both these small string orchestra versions comes the contrast of a duet by two solo violins, the first in The lark ascending stratosphere, Del Mar’s account not as serene as Vaughan Williams but rarefied, peaceful music. It’s shattered by raucous woodwind and full strings but the woodwind then lead on a more optimistic and open manner of expression, growingly passionate with a warmer aftermath from a horn solo. Nagano’s opening has more sultry allure and his violin soloists are sweeter but Del Mar’s, despite his slower tempo here, have more expressive purpose about them which gives the movement more intensity leading from tr. 10 3:46 to a more fervent central climax. Nagano’s becalming thereafter is pleasingly distilled where Del Mar is cooler, even a touch elegiac.
 
The Tarantella finale (tr. 11) has a restless, febrile brilliance, even when confined to ever changing solo instruments because the rhythm presses ever forward. The final section recalls themes from all movements, notably from 3:07, but without compromise to exhilaration. Del Mar’s performance is gripping throughout, a fresher, more straightforwardly stimulating romp than Nagano’s approach. This latter has raciness as well as restlessness, rather more edge but also humour and makes more of the central contrast of texture to wisps of solo instruments. Del Mar is more consistently intense even here and brings more of a galvanizing frenzy to the close.
 
After a nonchalant start, Berkeley’s Sinfonietta soon has plenty of bounce but keeps wanting to return to the nonchalance especially in a gracious tail to the opening sally on clarinet, oboe and flute (tr. 12 0:45). In Del Mar’s hands its first movement is perky, balletic and suitably contrasted. The beguiling second theme, starting on flutes and bassoons at 1:13, gets a rapturous response in the form of a horn solo. Despite another energetic phase the nonchalant material gets the lion’s share of the recapitulation and the final sound says it all: a crisp tutti chord but lingering overhang from the lower strings.
 
The slow second movement could be a lullaby. The flute with a gentle cantilena made more humane when the oboe takes over sympathetically and is then followed by clarinet. Del Mar perfectly catches its wonderfully controlled simplicity, an austere melodic outline flecked with some surprises, subtly refined in harmony and scoring. There’s an eerie transition to a more straightforward neoclassical allegro (tr. 13 5:23) but the surprise broad melody and cantabile marking at 7:25 is like suddenly admitting Vaughan Williams to create a resplendent close. This is the only recording. A small correction, Berkeley died in 1989, not 1976 as stated in the documentation.
 
With Arnold’s Sinfonietta, despite the easy flow, the strings’ opening theme seems more reticent than the warmer oboe and horn duet continuation. Nicholas Braithwaite brings out the shadowy elements, a piquant contrast for the later oboe solo of the theme to shine out and prophetic of the closing, more darkly penetrating horn solo.
 
I compared the 1972 recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra/Neville Dilkes (EMI 5747802). Here are the comparative timings.
 
Timings
I
II
III
Total
Del Mar
2:48
4:29 
2:36
9:53
Dilkes
2:42
4:08
2:25
9:15

Dilkes is more relaxed in the first movement with smoother phrasing. Braithwaite has a denser strings’ texture with more troubled, writhing episodes between the theme’s appearances. Braithwaite’s slower tempo gives the slow movement a more beauteously sorrowing reflection. The strings’ rustling in the central section is more anxious than Dilkes and the viola statement of the theme (tr. 15 1:49) more careworn. Braithwaite’s approach is more concentrated than Dilkes. At 2:56 the heavy lower strings aren’t masked, like Dilkes’ are, by the upper parts’ turmoil.
 
To the finale Braithwaite brings a spiky deliberation and bracing edge which comes from attention to the accents. This also gives a lumbering quality to the second theme on the horns (tr. 16 0:45). Dilkes gives us a more straightforward high-speed romp.
 
In sum, here’s a CD which fascinatingly challenges whether there’s a typical English divertimento or sinfonietta in the 20th century, all examples of which, within their relatively terse confines, offer food for thought as well as fun, as do the mettlesome performances and matchingly vivid recordings.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 
see also review by Rob Barnett           
 
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