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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Occasional Overture (1946) [7:27]
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 (1937) [25:54]
Prelude and Fugue for 18-Part String Orchestra, Op. 29 (1943) [9:49]
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell) (1946) [16:39]
English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
London Symphony Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
Recorded in All Saints Church, East Finchley in April 1992 (Opp. 10, 29) and the Barbican Center in London 23, 25 April 1991 (other works).
NAXOS 8.557200 [59:50]

Naxos continue to plumb the rich catalogue of the now sadly defunct Collins Classics label. Here’s another release from the ambitious Britten Recording Project that was undertaken by Steuart Bedford, a musician more closely associated with this composer than perhaps any other. His devotion to Britten’s work and his personal relationship with the composer has put him at the forefront as an interpreter, a position that is difficult to maintain given that Britten himself recorded nearly all of his own music.

This orchestral program is full of shining moments, beginning with the Occasional Overture, composed in 1946 for the debut of the BBC’s Third Program. This is a lively piece, full of charm and melody while at the same time showing off some biting dissonances and playful good humor. It is as if the composer tried in seven and a half minutes to give a preview of all the varieties of great music that would be played on the new radio channel. Bedford leads the LSO in a sprightly engaging performance, full of wit and grace.

The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge is the work which first brought major attention to Britten as a composer. A tribute to his teacher, he casts each variation as a memento to a specific quality in the elder composer’s personality. Britten also shows just how well he knew the art of music by skillfully imitating the styles of a number of fine composers, past and present. Included in the roster are such divergent lights as Rossini and Ravel. The English Chamber Orchestra plays with aplomb, and Bedford captures the various facets of character so carefully worked into the score. One might ask for a bit more tidiness from the strings in the Rossini-esque variation, as the ornamental figures tend to come off a bit blurry. That is but a small complaint though as this reading is on the whole completely satisfying.

The Prelude and Fugue was composed for the Boyd Neel Orchestra in celebration of its tenth anniversary. In the fugue, each member of the orchestra was provided with his own part. This is a fairly serious work, and it took an extra listen or two for me, at least, to appreciate it fully. But there is no doubting the craft and skill of the composer, and the performance is above reproach.

Lastly, we hear the ubiquitous Young Person’s Guide originally written with narration for an educational project of the Crown Film Unit. If there is an overplayed work by Britten, this is it; nonetheless, I find that I never tire of all of its wonderful, intricate and clever devices. In particular Britten makes wonderful use of the percussion section, with one variation dedicated solely to instruments you bang on. Bedford leads a spirited, vibrant performance.

This disc would make a great jumping off point for listeners new to Britten’s music. For us seasoned veterans, it is a fine revisit to some old favorites. Very highly recommended indeed.

Kevin Sutton



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