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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Suite from the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1997) [51’14]
(arranged by Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke)
Colin McPHEE (1900-1964)

Tabuh-Tabuhan, toccata for orchestra and two pianos (1936) [19’08]
Balinese Ceremonial Music, transcribed for two pianos (1940) [7’00]
Benjamin Britten, Colin McPhee (pianos – Ceremonial Music)
Elizabeth Birley, John Alley (pianos – Tabuh-Tabuhan)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Recorded at Watford Colosseum, London, 9-10 January, 2003
Ceremonial Music rec. for the publishers by Britten and McPhee in New York, 1941
CHANDOS CHAN 10111 [77’40]

This exceptionally colourful and entertaining disc represents a celebration of Britten’s interest in Indonesian gamelan music. It includes two substantial items by the man who first awakened that interest, Colin McPhee, one of which is also of historical significance (more on that later). The main item is a large chunk of Britten’s superbly scored, vibrantly exciting music for his short-lived 1957 ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. Though Britten himself recorded a heavily cut version of the ballet for Decca, I suspect it became well known to general music lovers through Oliver Knussen’s stunning late-1990s complete account on Virgin. I understand this has become tricky to find, so we can welcome this 50-odd minute selection, made with great skill and understanding by Britten scholars Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke.

By all accounts it was always Britten’s intention to try and devise a concert suite to ‘save’ some of the music he had worked so hard on, but this never materialised. Towards the end of his life he did sanction publication of the Prelude and Dances, a sequence of extracts chosen by Norman Del Mar in 1963. This is flawed, however, as it contains nothing from the second act, thus omitting the all-important Pagodas music. So the Mitchell/Cooke suite does fill a gap, allowing us to experience some of the composer’s most exotic music.

Even in this condensed form, the continuity of the plot is preserved, as is most of the best music. The glorious opening two-trumpet fanfare, so Brittenesque in its piquant dissonances, punctuates the ballet and recurs at important points, sometimes straight, at others skilfully elaborated. The instrumentation is virtuosic throughout, whether it is the suitably Oriental-sounding high muted horn solo and mistily tremolando strings of the ‘King of the East’ variation (track 9), or the gamelan-inspired accompaniment to ‘Belle Rose in the Kingdom of the Pagodas’ (track 14). I think we hear more than a hint of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the ‘King of the South’ music (track 11), where the polyrhythmic tribal drumming (marked quick and heavy, energetic) owes something of its forceful effectiveness to the Rite’s ‘Danse Sacrale’. But this is a passing resemblance, for time and again one is reminded that this is Britten through and through. One hears shades of Grimes here and there, even the Frank Bridge Variations, but the whole is filtered through a brilliantly fertile imagination and shows a composer truly inspired. It certainly made me want to experience Knussen’s complete recording again for the ‘missing’ music, but the BBC Symphony plays well for Slatkin (if not with quite the stunning virtuosity of the London Sinfonietta) and if this Chandos recording does nothing more than keep memories of this score alive (as well as gaining new converts) it is worth having it.

The McPhee items are important, as they show just where Britten was coming from. The two-piano transcription of the Balinese Ceremonial Music is as important for the recording as the music, with Britten and McPhee playing with crisp and incisive brilliance. The mono sound from 1941 is clear and full, and the biting, Orientally flavoured harmonies reminded me a little of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. McPhee became quite well known for his exuberant toccata Tabuh-Tabuhan, and Britten himself used some of the same instrumental combinations in Pagodas. The driving rhythms of the opening movement, suitably entitled ‘Ostinatos’, sound uncannily like early minimalism, and the Canadian composer’s links with the jazz and Latino music of America surface in the finale. An exhilarating and brilliantly scored piece.

The Chandos sound does full justice to the exoticism of the music, with great clarity and spatial depth. Excellent notes by Lloyd Moore complete what is a very desirable issue.

Tony Haywood


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