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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937)
St. Nicolas, Cantata Op.42 (1948)
Mark Tucker (tenor)
Zürich Boys’ Choir
Zürich Chamber Orchestra/Howard Griffiths
Recorded live at the Kirche Altstetten, Zürich, 25-27 February 2003 (Variations) and the live at the Zürich Tonhalle, 14-15 December, 2003 (St. Nicolas). DDD
CLAVES 50-2302 [74’48]

What looks on paper to be a well-filled new disc of two early Britten favourites has one fatal drawback. The main bill of fare, his 48-minute cantata St. Nicolas, is sung in German. All those inspired words by Eric Crozier, so imaginatively and idiomatically set by Britten, go for nothing when set in a foreign language. I’ve obviously nothing against the Germans, but I can’t possibly imagine anyone being remotely interested in this performance apart from the German-speaking audience it was recorded live in front of, and presumably intended for afterwards. It is musically very satisfying, with a well-characterised tenor lead from Mark Tucker and superbly lively and subtle conducting from Howard Griffiths. He has long been resident in Zürich, and his rapport with his excellent band is felt from the start. The Zürich Boys’ Choir sound so right in many passages, and are only out of their depth in a few passages, such as the low Fs in ‘He journeys to Palestine’, where what must be older boys are just not mature enough. With so many excellent performances available on disc (Bedford on Naxos, Best on Hyperion, Pears and Britten on Decca), the market for a German-language version will be limited to German-speaking areas, good as this is musically.

Which leaves the 25-minute Bridge Variations. Again, we get superb results musically, with a beautifully balanced ‘studio’ sound from the Tonhalle. Griffiths’ track record in English music is impeccable (think of his Finzi on Naxos). The way he gets his strings to trenchantly dig into the introductory figure immediately grabs the listener’s attention. Every variation is subtly shaded and characterised, whether it be the famous Aria Italiana (the one that used to introduce Saturday morning’s ‘Record Review’ in the John Lade days) or the quicksilver Moto Perpetuo. Make no mistake, this is playing and conducting of great virtuosity and vitality, and can easily live with the best of the competition. But unless you really want to fork out full price for this one performance (again there are many alternatives) and be saddled with such a quirky main item (without even an English translation) then this disc has a very limited market.

Tony Haywood

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