Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Britten's Orchestra
The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946) [17:14]
Sinfonia da requiem (1940) [19:26]
Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia (1945) [24:33]
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. 5-6 June 2009, Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri, USA.

I had to remind myself of the dates of these works. In the process one catches oneself wondering at the mastery of a composer who during the second world war wrote this music between the ages of 27 and 33.

The Young Person's Guide is done with wonderful grandeur and clarity. One might however have wished that each of the thirteen variations had been separately tracked. It would have aided the use and enjoyment of the disc. While it is the norm to offer the Guide in a monolithic slab it’s a pity that the recreative thought that went into interpolating the Passacaglia as the penultimate movement of the Interludes sequence – not something done previously - had not been applied in this regard also.

This is a doughty and deeply satisfying contender in the Britten stakes. These works have never received such a sumptuous and transparently communicative recording before. If I prefer Previn by the slightest margin it’s because the breaking strain tension in the Previn-EMI is just that shade more zingingly taut and thrummingly tight. Even so the Passacaglia has never sounded so intense – just listen to the searing serrated emotional ‘razor’ at 2:01. It’s superb. The plangent iron soul of the bell is also heard as never before in Sunday Morning in the hands of Stern and the Kansas orchestra. The Sinfonia is amongst Britten’s strongest works and heard now suggests a stronger linkage with the symphonies of Harris, Schuman and Mennin than with anything going on in the UK at the time.

Interesting to note that Peter Grimes was premiered at London’s Sadler’s Wells on 7 June 1945 and that the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes entered the world at a Cheltenham concert six days later. The Sinfonia da Requiem was a commission by the Japanese Government for the 2600th anniversary of its ruling House. When the titles of the movements (drawn from the requiem mass) became public knowledge Japan rejected the Sinfonia. The dedication is ‘In memory of my parents’ and Barbirolli premiered the piece in New York with the NYPSO on 30 March 1941. If I recall correctly a recording of that event is available on VAI. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – also known as Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell – was premiered by Sargent in Liverpool on 15 October 1946. Sargent later appeared as king-pin – what else? – in a Crown Film Unit educational short in which he talked the audience through a performance of the YPG. It has been reissued on a Beulah DVD. That short film kept doing the round of UK schools well into the 1960s.

This is a generous classic Britten collection recorded in stunning sound typical of the label. As such it makes a fitting successor to their even stronger release of the Sibelius and Sullivan Tempest music. This orchestra and conductor are well worth watching but I do hope that they will avoid the accustomed path of standard orchestral spectaculars and keep treading the little trodden paths. How about Arthur Farwell’s Rudolph Gott Symphony?

Rob Barnett