This CD contains music
composed over the entire span of Britten’s
career, from the early Simple Symphony
based on themes written in childhood,
to the orchestral version of Lachrymae,
a work from 1976, the year of his death.
Another feature of the programme is
that each work reached the form it has
here by stages. Temporal Variations
and A Charm of Lullabies have
been orchestrated by Colin Matthews.
As already mentioned, the Simple
Symphony is an arrangement and expansion
of music written earlier. Lachrymae
is the composer’s own orchestral
version of a viola and piano work first
performed in 1950. A time there was
... started life as a single movement,
Hankin Booby, to which Britten
later added four more.
This CD is entirely
equal to the generally very high standard
set by the Britten re-issues that have
been flowing from Naxos for some time
now. For me, the least impressive performance
on this disc is the Simple Symphony,
which, though more than adequate, lacks
a little panache and conviction. It
is a very youthful work, being premiered
when the composer was just twenty-one.
Yet it is undeniably brilliant, both
in the content and in use of the resources
of the string body. I emphasise that
this is not a weak performance,
but just doesn’t quite reach the level
I feel I can expect from Bedford in
his interpretations of this composer.
Nicholas Daniel, on
the other hand, gives a truly stunning
account of the Temporal Variations.
It is a fascinating piece, written
for an oboist friend in 1936, and unaccountably
withdrawn by the composer after its
premiere. It has been published since
Britten’s death, and has now settled
firmly in the repertoire of enterprising
oboists – in fact another version for
review, though this time of the version
with piano accompaniment, has landed
on my desk and will be reviewed shortly.
The theme has a plaintive
rising semitone as its main idea, and
the variations, though tiny, are masterly,
as Britten’s later, larger-scale exercises
in the form would lead us to expect.
Var. 4, entitled ‘Commination’ (which
I discover means a ‘threat of divine
retribution’) looks forward in its rapid
staccato to Phaeton in the Ovid
Metamorphoses for solo oboe, and gives
way to a wondrous chorale, in which
the string phrases are punctuated by
single very soft sustained oboe notes.
Magical, and realised with superb artistry
by Daniel and the orchestra.
Colin Matthews made
a splendid job of orchestrating the
Temporal Variations, and the
same can be said of his version of A
Charm of Lullabies. I am not convinced,
however, by his decision to link the
first three songs together; certainly
the transition from the first to the
second is, to say the least, a bit of
a harmonic shock! Nevertheless, Catherine
Wyn-Rogers is an outstandingly tender
and sensitive soloist, making these
five songs a haunting experience.
The Suite on English
Folk-Tunes is subtitled ‘A time there
was…’ , quoting enigmatically from
Thomas Hardy’s poem Before life and
after, which Britten had set as
the final song of Winter Words. This
suite deserves to be more popular, and,
in its light-hearted way, is thoroughly
representative of the composer’s genius.
Strikingly, he chooses to end with the
saddest of the songs, Lord Melbourne,
which is set as a melancholy cor anglais
solo, creating a heavy, doom-laden atmosphere.
And so Naxos has unfolded
yet more layers of this astonishing
composer; an issue to cherish, and,
at over seventy minutes, excellent value