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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
1. Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-6 BWV 1046-51 (1721) [1:42:59]
2. Air from Suite No 3 in D BWV 1068 [5:13]
3.“Sheep may safely graze” (from Cantata BWV 208) (arr. Bantock) [5:28]
Willam BYRD (1543-1623) – Arthur OLDHAM (b.1926) – Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) – Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989) – Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) – Humphrey SEARLE (1915-1982) – William WALTON (1902-1983)
4. Sellinger’s Round (Variations on an Elizabethan Theme) (1953) [15:07]
Thomas ARNE (1710-1778)
5. “ Alfred” – Rule Britannia [5:17]
6. “The Fairy Prince” – Now the air shall ring [3:59]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
7.”O Lord grant the Queen (orig: King) a Long Life” [7:00]
Anon (arr. Britten)
8. God save the Queen [2:39]
Jeremiah CLARKE (1674-1707)
9. Trumpet Voluntary [2:47]
English Chamber Orchestra (1); London Symphony Orchestra (8,9); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (2,3); Trumpeters of Kneller Hall Royal Military School of Music (9); The Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra (4,5,6,7); Peter Pears (tenor) (5,7); Arda Mandikian (soprano) (6); Gladys Whitred (soprano) (6); Alfred Deller (counter tenor) (7); Norman Lumsden (bass) (7); Aldeburgh Festival Chorus (5,6,7); London Symphony Chorus (8); Benjamin Britten (conductor) (1,4,8,9); Imogen Holst (conductor) (5,6); Sir Adrian Boult (conductor) (2,3)
rec. The Maltings, Snape, December 1968 (1), Kingsway Hall, London, November 1959 (2,3), Parish Church, Aldeburgh, June 1953 (4,5,6,7), Kingsway Hall, London, December 1961 (8,9): texts included
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9521 [74:13+76:49]
Experience Classicsonline

Clearly the main item here is the version of the Brandenburg Concertos conducted by Britten, but there is one other substantial piece – the Variations on Sellinger’s Round – and a number of interesting oddments, which in one case is rather more than that.
 
The Brandenburgs were recorded during the series of sessions at Snape Maltings which also included a disc of English music for strings and the “Salute to Percy Grainger”, both of which have come to be regarded by many as being among the best of Britten’s recordings as conductor. The Brandenburgs are less obviously successful, and indeed may come as something of a surprise to those used to the brisker performances with period instruments which have become the norm. Speeds are generally on the sober side, and the use of a harpsichord is the only obvious bow to period practice as it is now understood. They are in fact comparable in style and character to the recordings made much earlier by Adolf Busch and Boyd Neel - now available from Dutton - both of which remain classic recordings due to their sheer musicality.
 
Even if Britten’s set may not be a complete success it still has much to offer. Nos. 3 and 6 – the only two entirely for string instruments - are by some way the best, with real rhythmic impulse and sense of direction, and with a care for balance that is rare in these works. All too often No. 6 can sound turgid and overlong, but here it is pure pleasure from beginning to end. In No. 3 the brief decoration between movements, presumably by Britten, adds much to the character of the Concerto as a whole. No. 5 and No. 1 are good in parts although slow speeds do make the final movements of the latter seem to last a very long time. Nos. 2 and 4 are certainly not negligible as performances, with matters of balance dealt with very convincingly, but at these somewhat slow speeds even these players find it difficult to obtain real rhythmic lift to the phrases.
 
Overall this is set very worthwhile adding to your collection, especially as an alternative to more recent recordings using period instruments, even if it is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite as a whole.
 
What makes the set an essential purchase for the Britten enthusiast is the very varied selection of shorter items on the second disc. The Variations on Sellinger’s Round for string orchestra were written especially for the opening concert of the 1953 Aldeburgh Festival. This took place only weeks after the Coronation of the present Queen, at a time when there was much talk of a “New Elizabethan Age”, and I would imagine that the subtitle “Variations on an Elizabethan Theme” and the division of the composition between six leading British composers of the time were very much linked to this. It is good to hear the first performance on this disc, even if the recording is very thin at times and the playing does sound somewhat approximate in places. Nonetheless it is an enjoyable piece, which would be worth an occasional performance today. For me the best parts are the Variations by Tippett and Searle, but the whole can be recommended both in itself and to anyone with an interest in that period.
 
The other items deriving from that opening concert are more of curiosity than musical interest, as even more are the two short Bach items conducted by Boult. Indeed their relevance to the rest of the programme is by no means clear. Britten conducts the Trumpet Voluntary in a suitably festive manner although I could not claim that it is any sort of revelation. The best by far of the short items is Britten’s arrangement of the National Anthem, whose quiet first verse always surprises audiences but whose clangorous end is immensely effective.
 
This is obviously an essential purchase for Britten enthusiasts, but can also be recommended to others with an interest in him as composer or performer, and to those who simply want a satisfying alternative to other recordings they may have of the Brandenburgs.
 
John Sheppard
 

 


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