Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34* [16.42]
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op.33a [15.40]
Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10 [25.24]
Simple Symphony, Op.4 [16.51]
English Symphony Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 11-12 April 1991*; Great Hall, Birmingham University, 30-31 March 1995
NIMBUS NI 7017 [74.36]
One of the very first CD releases ever was Decca’s reissue of Britten’s own recordings of the Young Person’s Guide from a 1964 LP, the Frank Bridge Variations from 1967, and a 1969 recording of the Simple Symphony given in the Snape Maltings. These were indeed among Britten’s best recordings of his own music. He was always a superb interpreter of his works, even when sometimes the contributions of individual performers were fallible. The recorded sound was, and remains, superb. The CD under consideration here reduplicates the contents of that release and adds the Sea Interludes, which Britten himself never recorded except as part of his two complete readings (audio and video) of Peter Grimes.
It has to be said that William Boughton’s performances, good as they are, do not measure up to the composer’s. For a start the recordings are much less ‘engineered’ – that is to say, what we are given in the Young Person’s Guide is a straightforward concert hall acoustic without any attempt to bring the various solo instruments of the orchestra forward into prominence. Britten’s scoring was invariably skilful, but the highlighting given to, for example, the harp in his own recording adds to our enjoyment by letting us hear all the detail that is inevitably somewhat muffled in a ‘natural’ acoustic. The violins in their polacca variation benefit from the larger sound of Britten’s London Symphony Orchestra strings, as opposed to what sounds like a somewhat smaller body in Birmingham. Boughton attempts – with success – to match Britten’s hectic speed for the final fugue, but the greater distance of the orchestral sound means that the clarity of the writing is not as clearly conveyed.
Some might indeed object that the English Chamber Orchestra for Britten make too ‘beefy’ a sound in their highly resonant recording of the Simple Symphony, but in the recording under consideration here Boughton is much more polite, much more laid-back in music which really should conjure up the sheer joy of creation which we find in Britten’s reinvention of music from his childhood. The playing in the Playful pizzicato shows great skill, but the ECO strings for Britten also find a sense of fun which nearly makes the listener forget how annoyingly close the tune comes to the facile nursery rhyme Girls and boys come out to play.
The English Chamber Orchestra featured again in Britten’s own reading of the Frank Bridge Variations, but the slimmer recorded sound they were given in 1967 is more evenly matched by Boughton’s recording in the reverberant Birmingham acoustic. The results are very comparable. Indeed Boughton’s strings are a bit crisper in places, and he brings out the weird melancholy of the Funeral march variation most effectively.
The main point of this compilation must be Boughton’s performance of the Four Sea Interludes, which indeed are highlighted as the principal item on the disc. Here Boughton is very relaxed, treating the music as a series of miniature tone poems rather than as part of a dramatic work. These are not easy pieces to play, and the violins sound stretched to their limits both in the high-lying cantilenas of Morning and the quicksilver figuration of Sunday morning. Nor do they bring real warmth to the initial statement of the tune associated in the opera with Ellen’s “Glitter of waves”, so that the more etiolated versions which follow do not form a real contrast. However Boughton brings a nice sense of depth to the Moonlight movement, which he keeps moving so that the sense of line is maintained; at a slower speed this music can sometimes almost grind to a halt. In the final Storm the natural balance of the orchestra brings out the violence of the music, but there are problems when the reverberation of the gong almost overwhelms the woodwind in the opening phrases of the fast central section (at 1.45). The sense of the principal line is sometimes obscured elsewhere.
These are, therefore, good performances which one would be delighted to encounter in the concert hall, and which will give listeners a real sense of the overwhelming greatness of the music. That said, in the end, Britten’s own performances made some twenty years earlier bring a greater sense of conviction as well as offering a recording that still sounds superb. Even in Boughton’s Sea Interludes which Britten never recorded independently - although there was at one time available a version which was taken from the complete audio recording, including vocal passages and fade-outs - there is a greater sense of dramatic involvement to be found in other performances.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Good performances and which will give a real sense of the overwhelming greatness of the music.