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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Simple Symphony for Strings, op.4 (1934) [15:56]
Temporal Variations (1936) orch. Colin Matthews (1993) [13:50]
A Charm of Lullabies, op.41 (1947) arr. Colin Matthews (1993) [13:45]
Lachrymae, op.48a (1976) [14:30]
Suite on English Folk Tunes, ‘A time there was….’ op.90 (1974) [13:45]
Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Philip Dukes (viola)
Northern Sinfonia/Steuart Bedford
Recorded at All Saints Church, Gosforth, Newcastle, UK, 16-17 July 1998. DDD
NAXOS 8.557205 [71:46]

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 It is a fascinating piece, written for an oboist friend in 1936, and unaccountably withdrawn by the composer after its premiere.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 too.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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