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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Les Illuminations, Op. 18, Simple Symphony Op 4, Frank Bridge Variations, Op 10.
Franziska Hirzel (soprano)
Kiev Chamber Orchestra/Roman Kofman
recorded Bonn, 24-6th November, 2003 DDD
MDG 601 1275-2 [68'26"]

Any recording by MDG, the audiophile company run by sound engineers Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm is worth listening to; this is no exception. Here they take a relatively unknown chamber orchestra and take on some of the greatest classics of string repertoire.

The Kiev Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1963, and is Ukraine's leading ensemble. Their conductor, Roman Kofman was their first concert master and remained with them until moving to Bonn last year, when this recording was made. These three Britten pieces have been recorded so many times, and so well, including by the composer himself, that one would hardly expect this version to be among the main contenders. Nonetheless, on its own terms, it is commendable.

Britten's Simple Symphony is based on pieces he'd written from the age of nine. While it presents no virtuoso challenges, it needs to be performed with verve. Here, the Kiev Chamber Orchestra perform with a real sense of enjoyment. Boisterous Bourrée starts dramatically, then expands into lyrical territory. This is music that must be a joy to play, as so many string techniques are used. Playful Pizzicato, for example, is a witty ode to single plucked strings! The Kiev musicians bring a great sense of warmth and humour. The long third movement, Sentimental Sarabande, opens with the strings shimmering, then like the first movement, opens into expansive lyricism. Kofman gets his players to respond here as if they were playing a great Romantic, rather than a 20 year old Englishman, still finding himself as a composer. There are lovely passages here, almost song like. When the music returns to the gaiety and plucked strings of Frolicsome Finale, you are left wondering how Britten might have developed had he lived in different times.

For me, Les Illuminations was a big disappointment. The orchestra played well and there are some lovely details, such as the violin solo in Fanfare and Antique. In the Interlude, the strings weave diaphanously, from one passage to another. Indeed, I found myself focusing on the piece as an exercise in string playing. But Les Illuminations was written to be sung, the texts being so singular that they need to clearly heard. The meaning of symbolist poetry isn't precise, for Rimbaud was opening new frontiers "beyond" conscious meaning. But it does not follow that the singing of these texts should be imprecise. Indeed, ideally, singing should be even more clear and forthright to bring out the complex imagery. Franziska Hirzel is Swiss, and specializes in contemporary opera, and in theory, might prove a good interpreter. However, here she lets her voice elide when the text is biting. Consonants disappear into an amorphous stream of indistinct sound. The orchestra holds the piece together, but if the central, and recurring, phrase "J'ai seul le clef de cette parade sauvage!" (I alone have the key to this wild parade) is unconvincing, then the whole piece is without purpose.

The orchestra is back on firmer ground with Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Bridge was Britten's teacher, who shaped his taste for modern and European music, for Schoenberg instead of Stanford. Bridge was very much an isolated outsider in the music circles of his time, but Britten remained his loyal champion. The Variations, based on Bridge's Three Idylls for String Quartet proved immediately popular, launching Britten's international career. Britten uses a variety of forms, a March, a Romance, a Waltz, a Bourée, a Funeral March, an Aria. The orchestra whips from mood to mood with aplomb, relishing the ingenuity. For example, the Viennese Waltz is a parody: the Kiev players make much of the "ghostly" passage that creeps in towards the end, and soon reflected in the Moto perpetuo which follows, and in the final Fugue. As the booklet notes say "as far as compositional technique is concerned, one remarkable feature stands out......the broadening of the sound in the multiple division of all the instrumental groups over a tonal range of five octaves". Indeed, it is in this piece that the Kiev Chamber Orchestra shows just what it is made of skilled ensemble players with a feel for the variety, imagination and colour of Britten's works for string orchestra

Anne Ozorio


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