Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes, op. 33a (1945) [15:40]
Suite on English Folk Tunes, ‘A time there was …’, op. 90 (1974) [14:23]
The Courtly Dances from the opera Gloriana, op. 53a (1953) [9:59]
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, op. 34 (1947) [16:42]
English Symphony Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 11-12 April 1991. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5295 [57:43]
I like William Boughton’s Dawn (tr. 1), the first of the sea interludes from Peter Grimes. He conjures up a seascape of clean sound, keen elements and crisp atmosphere in the brightness of the violins and flutes, depicting gulls swooping (from 1:41), gurgling of clarinets, harps and violas and splashes of cymbal spray. The brass entry (0:30) depicting a ‘slow wave’ according to Britten’s notes in his copy of the miniature score, has quite a warm presence, the ‘big wave’ climax (from 2:16) has weight and power but equally just is. I compared the 1989 recording by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pesek (EMI 6 95579 2). Pesek takes a more dramatic approach with the gull swoops more carefully articulated and waves more ominous (as Britten himself suggested in a programme note), but this is more appropriate in the context of the opera than in a purely orchestral portrait.
Sunday Morning (tr. 2) begins with sunshine glittering on the waves in a myriad of tricky cross-rhythms. Boughton holds back a little to ensure precision, so his account has less sparkle than the fresher Pesek who has more bite and zip. The other element of the piece is the theme ‘Glitter of waves’ as sung by Ellen in the opera, appearing first in the violas and cellos (1:04). Boughton makes this suitably maternal while Pesek, again dramatizing more, projects a more earnest caring. On its second appearance in the violins (2:26) Boughton makes it more optimistic where Pesek is more quietly hopeful. Its final appearance, as a fragment in the violins’ upper register (3:12) Boughton makes more visionary where Pesek’s is a sweeter, dreamier recollection.
In Moonlight (tr. 3) the opening lilt of the crescendi and decrescendi of the lower strings, bassoons, double bassoon and horns depicts boats at anchor. It’s perhaps too firmly marked by Boughton here (I prefer Pesek’s gentler bobbing and softer focus) but it is clear and there is warmth to it. The moonlight itself comes in streaks across this expanse from flutes and harp. At the climax there’s more of a swell in which Boughton draws our attention again to the latent power of nature in a straight but very atmospheric reading. Pesek’s climax has, paradoxically and intriguingly, a stillness even in its weight.
Boughton’s Storm (tr. 4) has mighty, snarling, exciting surges of waves and sinister chromatically rising trombones and trumpets so there’s plenty of raw excitement but at its still centre (2:35) which Britten terms ‘Grimes’ ecstasy’, the theme of his ‘What harbour shelters peace?’, he also brings a dreamy, visionary smoothness and yearning for repose before the storm’s final onslaught. At a somewhat faster tempo (4:16 against Boughton’s 4:35) Pesek’s storm has more feeling of the elements out of control but his brass rising scales are tamer and Grimes’ ecstasy is a cooler, more contrasted, remote calm with less yearning.
To Cakes and Ale, the opening movement of Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes, Boughton brings a grim, hectic jubilation in which everyone is doing their own thing and nothing may come together. The delivery of a kind of chorale in the centre of the movement is broken by snatches of solo violin and brusque trumpet fanfares, a detailed analysis of disunity. I compared the 1984 recording by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle (EMI 5 55394 2). Rattle is more mysterious and questioning, the atmosphere is heavier, more Mahlerian, the woodwind chatter makes you more uneasy. Boughton observes from a distance, Rattle takes you into the experience.
The second movement, The Bitter Withy (tr. 6), is more comfortably from Boughton a vision of serenity in ascending strings though the mood becomes more ambivalent following the introduction of a dusky second tune, ‘The Mermaid’, and the greater ascents of the return of the opening one more troubled. Rattle’s treatment is warmer and the sound picture is more colourful and dense, partly because his attention to Britten’s contrasts in dynamic is more marked. His second tune has more edge, as does the varieties of mood Britten marks in the first tune’s return and physical and psychological expansion, at its final apex (2:13 in Boughton’s account) ‘cold’, thereafter ‘sorrowful’ (2:25) before a slight relaxation at the close and melting in the final bar. But you can’t forget what’s happened in the interim.
To Hankin Booby, for wind instruments and drum, Boughton brings a sinister aura from the start, morose, sultry and dark toned with a relentless progression. This I find more compelling than Rattle’s greater sprightliness and more appreciably densely textured hive of activity. Boughton’s Hunt the Squirrel, for strings alone, has more sense of fun and exhilaration as a brilliant barn dance where Rattle is heady yet a touch studied. Similarly in the finale, Lord Melbourne, Rattle’s sense of meditation is a little too intent whereas Boughton allows the melody to be delivered in a freely expressive manner without uniformity after an expansive leisurely taking in of the atmosphere. It’s 1:02 (tr. 9) before the melody appears in full form on cor anglais and emerges from within rather than dominating the texture. A central section of more variety and fervour, more starkly contrasted by Boughton than Rattle, arises from the melody and from other instruments, yet when the cor anglais returns you still feel it’s capable of endless variation. Boughton achieves a fine equipoise between rhapsody and elegy.
The Courtly Dances are a sequence that takes place at a ball in the opera Gloriana. They offer a bracing mid 20th century perspective of orchestration on Elizabethan style melodies and rhythmic patterns. In this they chime well with The Young Person’s Guide to follow. They are framed by a March attending the Queen in state, brightly projected by Boughton with an ingenuous enjoyment of its basic syncopation spotlit at the beginning of the second strain by the upper woodwind and trumpet. I compared the 1994 recording by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa (EMI 2 17526 2) where the dances are the third section of a larger Symphonic Suite from the opera which is the entire op. 53a. Yuasa begins with a lighter pulse than Boughton but makes more of the dynamic contrast between the strains.
The Coranto that follows swirls around in a great sweep much more racily like a barn dance with a drone in the clarinets and bassoons and later a larger than life harp of a pizzicato in the strings. Boughton brings freshness and enthusiasm to all this where Yuasa is more insistent and hot blooded but less fun. The third dance is a Pavane scored for brass and percussion. Boughton makes this august and heavy, the trumpets especially with an ominous quality, a feel for the impending tragedy the opera charts. Yuasa’s approach is more vauntingly majestic but lingers in the memory less. With Boughton I felt a threat of summary justice; with Yuasa it seemed more like a brass band test piece, excellently accomplished. Britten’s scoring changes to woodwind and percussion for the Morris Dance where Boughton is nimble, flighty and shadowy. Yuasa is more manic, less liveable with.
Britten’s take on the Galliard, ‘gently flowing’, is more romantic yet Boughton’s suaveness presents it as an archetypal courtly courteousness, refined playing with a solo violin providing comely decoration, later joined by another so they can glide around each other in imitation. Yuasa is rather more staid here, whereas Boughton is comfortable and natural.. The last dance, Lavolta, is by contrast an opportunity for letting the hair down. What you’re likely to remember most is the healthy vulgarity of the glissandi, the quick and garish slides Britten scores for three trombones in turn, a really earthy counterpart to those two violin butterflies of the previous dance. Boughton projects them clearly whereas Yuasa sends them up arguably overmuch. What Boughton overall achieves more is a real feeling of the pieces as dances: you can visualize the steps.
For all its educational value and ingenuity of scoring, it’s good to remember The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra has a subtitle which clarifies its musical form and what makes it a satisfying piece in its own right, ‘Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell’. Here Boughton has the measure of the theme, bringing to the introduction majesty but a fair sweep and stylishness too. I compared Britten's own recording made with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1963 (Decca 425 6592). His introduction is more festive than Boughton's, with more of a dance thrust.
Some variations come off better than others. Boughton’s for flutes and piccolo is shimmering but less substantial than Britten’s playfulness. Britten’s for oboes is reflective yet also sweet whereas Boughton’s is more seductively drawn out. Britten’s variation for clarinets is more characterfully jaunty than Boughton’s. The violins’ variation, ‘brillante alla polacca’, comes across with more zip and style from Britten but Boughton is the more successful in the violas’ variation, through smoother phrasing creating a more tellingly nonchalant musing, faraway quality. Similarly in the cellos’ variation Boughton brings more cohesion to the phrasing without any loss of intensity. His double-basses and harp variations, however, are understated, in both of which Britten’s account shows more character, though this is partly because of the Decca recording’s more distinctive spatial positioning. Boughton’s horns have a powerful yet rather neutral presence in their variation where Britten’s are more ominous. Boughton’s trumpets are lively if not quite as playful as Britten’s. Boughton’s trombones’ variation is for me too straight, which is likely his take on the pomposo marking whereas Britten’s account is both grand and sunny and he doesn't mind the hint of vulgarity confirmed in the tailing tuba. Boughton’s percussion ‘turns’ are similarly a relatively straight muster where Britten manages to make them both more individually dramatic in their own way and more cohesive as a whole.
Boughton’s presentation of the fugue is neat and nifty, lightly articulated and with the entries and increasing layering commendably clear. But it doesn’t quite have the celebratory cheeriness of Britten’s account, nor his growingly perceptible element of casting aside all inhibition. Boughton balances the return of Purcell’s theme at the end firmly enough against the climax of the fugue but the potential of that climax is more fully realized by Britten.
To sum up, I like the selection of well-known Britten and pieces that deserve to be better known. Performances and recording are of a high standard.
Michael Greenhalgh
Performances and recording of a high standard … see Full Review