Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Symphonic Suite from Gloriana, Op. 53a (1954) [25:19]
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 (1963) [34:38]
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a (1945) [16:05]
Robert Murray (tenor) (Gloriana); Paul Watkins (cello) (Symphony)
BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, England, 14-15 July 2010. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10658 [76:22]

After Edward Gardner’s success with Peter Grimes at the English National Opera, it is not surprising that Chandos would record the conductor in a program devoted to Britten’s orchestral works. Two of the three pieces here are from opera and Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic do them proud. I cannot remember hearing a more evocative or exciting Four Sea Interludes, and the Courtly Dances from Gloriana are delightfully pointed and phrased. Gloriana itself has had a troubled history. Composed for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953, its subject is the ill-fated relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. Having an earl executed for treason was not what one would expect to celebrate a new queen’s coronation! Still, the opera and the suite that Britten took from it the following year contain much glorious music — from the brass fanfares of the jousting music at the beginning to the powerful depiction of the execution and the queen’s reflection at the end. The second movement is the beautiful lute song for tenor that Essex sang. Robert Murray epitomizes the British tenor and sings the song with great feeling and warmth. Britten also scored the song for oboe when a tenor was unavailable and that version has been recorded, too. Here when the tune recurs in the last movement, it is played on the oboe.

Two-thirds of this CD comes into direct competition with another all-Britten disc, that by Britten protégé Steuart Bedford and the London Symphony originally on Collins Classics - now on Naxos since the demise of Collins. That disc also contains the Gloriana suite and the Four Sea Interludes. A comparison of the recordings shows both to be worthy and their differences complementary. While Gardner excels in the Sea Interludes, Bedford also includes the Passacaglia missing here. In the Gloriana music, Bedford uses the oboe option for the Lute Song each time it appears. Gardner’s Courtly Dances are a bit faster and more buoyant than Bedford’s, but the latter’s execution scene is stronger with especially powerful timpani. I would want to keep both for another reason. The third piece on the Bedford disc is the Sinfonia da Requiem in an absolutely terrific performance — my favorite of the three I own, including the composer’s own. If nothing else were on the CD under review, it would be highly attractive for its additional work, the Cello Symphony.

It has taken years for the Cello Symphony to receive its due in recordings, and it has not received the exposure in the concert hall that it deserves either. Considered one of Britten’s more “difficult” compositions to appreciate has done it few favors. The authoritative account is that by Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom it was written, with the composer conducting. Their recording is how I got to know the piece. Although I have always appreciated it and felt it must be one of Britten’s strongest works, I can say I never really loved the work — that is until now with this new recording. Rostropovich and Britten will always remain the benchmark, but the cellist’s outsize personality and the way the work is recorded make it seem more of a concerto than a symphony. Here one can finally appreciate it for what it was meant to be. This is not to say that Paul Watkins is not up to the task. He is eloquent in his role as primus inter pares and performs his solos superbly. What makes this so special is the way Gardner integrates the orchestra’s role with that of the soloist and brings out all kinds of details — especially the winds — that I was not aware of before. Special mention should be made of the trumpet solo at the beginning of the final movement passacaglia. The trumpeter plays with great tone and really nails the high note while keeping the sound pure at the same time. Wonderful! The whole orchestra outdoes itself throughout the disc and the engineers have provided state-of-the-art sound. It is hoped that Edward Gardner will continue making recordings of the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos, if this is any indication of what they can produce together. It’s early in the year, but I am quite certain that this will be among my top recordings of 2011!

Leslie Wright

Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic do Britten proud.