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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Spring Symphony, Op.44 (1949) [44:44]
Welcome Ode, Op.95 (1976) [8:16]
Psalm 150, Op.67* (1962) [5:31]
Elizabeth Gale (soprano), Alfreda Hodgson (contralto), Martyn Hill (tenor)
City of London School Choir (Boys), City of London School for Girls Choir, London Symphony Chorus, Southend Boys Choir, *Orchestra of the City of London School for Girls,  London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 8-10 January and 27 March 1990, St. Jude’s Church, Central Square, London NW1. DDD
English texts included
CHANDOS CHAN10782X [58:48]

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34 (1946) [17:16]
Suite on English Folk Tunes ‘A time there was...’, Op.90 (1974) [15:35]
Suite from ‘Johnson over Jordan’, arr. Paul Hindmarsh (1939) [17:01]
Four Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’, Op.33a (1945) [16:45]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 18-19 March 1993, Winter Gardens, Bournemouth. DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN10784X  [67:04]

I missed both these discs when first they were issued in the early 1990s, probably because I already had several versions of most of the pieces in my collection. The discs were originally issued as CHAN8855 (Spring Symphony) and CHAN9221 and are now reissued in 2013 re-masterings as part of The Hickox Legacy series. The timing of the reissues could not be more appropriate in Britten’s centenary year and one wonders if Chandos will reissue more of Hickox’s Britten recordings this year; his excellent recording of War Requiem must surely merit a place in this Legacy series.
 
There have been several fine recordings of Spring Symphony over the years, including the composer’s own performance for Decca (1960, the work’s first studio recording) and Previn’s 1978 EMI account. This Hickox reading must be up there with the best. He has a very good team of soloists, among whom Alfreda Hodgson is outstanding - especially in ‘Out on the Lawn I lie in Bed’. The LSO Chorus is on top form, as is the LSO itself, and I think any listener will be impressed by the tension that chorus and orchestra generate, at Hickox’s behest, in the extended Introduction section. The contribution of the Southend Boys Choir is superb. In Part I they launch into ‘When as the rye’ with infectious zest, justifying annotator Lewis Foreman’s description of this “joyous guttersnipe setting”. Towards the end of the work the enthusiasm with which they sing ‘Sumer is icumen in’ is a delight, as is the tumultuous way in which Hickox and his ensemble deliver the finale as a whole.
 
The disc is completed by two works that demonstrate Britten’s genius for writing music for young people that stretches them without ever patronising them. The Welcome Ode was his last completed work and the Senior Choirs of the two London schools sing it excellently, aided and abetted by the LSO. When it comes to the ebullient setting of Psalm 150, which features the junior choir of each school, there isn’t a professional musician in sight apart from Hickox and the LSO’s then-timpanist, Kurt-Hans Goedicke for the accompaniment is in the hands of a school orchestra and a jolly fine job they and the choirs make of it.
 
Voices are entirely absent in the works on the other disc, which contains two of Britten’s best-known and -loved orchestral scores. Here Hickox conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, whose Principal Guest Conductor he was at the time these recordings were made. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a masterly set of variations and an equally masterly exploration of the resources of the modern symphony orchestra. The present performance is a sparkling one, enhanced by the rich Chandos recording. All the individual variations come off splendidly - and I award a plaudit to Chandos for tracking each one separately. The fugue scampers along and the moment when the brass majestically reprise Purcell’s theme over the whirling fugue makes its due impact: that’s one of those moments in music that, in my experience, usually stirs the listener no matter how often one has heard it.
 
Hickox also leads a fine account of the Four Sea Interludes - what a shame he didn’t include the Passacaglia also. He achieves a splendid atmosphere in ‘Dawn’ and the music of ‘Sunday Morning’ becomes increasingly urgent as the piece unfolds. Finally Hickox unleashes a menacing, turbulent ‘Storm’, the impact of which is heightened considerably thanks to the superb Chandos sound.
 
The Suite on English Folk Tuneswas Britten’s last orchestral work, completed in 1974. However, its origins lie in an earlier composition, ‘Hankin Booby’, which he composed in 1967 for the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. That piece became the third of the Suite’s five movements. The Suite is dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger and, given the original and imaginative Grainger-like way in which Britten treats folk songs in this work, there could be no more appropriate homage. The quirky woodwind writing in ‘Hankin Booby’ is highly reminiscent of A Lincolnshire Posy and that’s even more true of the fifth movement, ’Lord Melbourne’. That concluding movement takes the Suite onto an altogether higher plane than the music that has gone before, fine though that is. This Bournemouth performance of the Suite is excellent.
 
The rarity here is the music from Johnson over Jordan. I learned from Andrew Burn’s valuable notes that this was an experimental 1939 play by J.B. Priestley for which Britten wrote the incidental music - following very precise instructions from Priestley, it seems. So far as I know the play has sunk without trace. Some of Britten’s music was salvaged by Paul Hindmarsh who fashioned a four-movement suite from the original score in 1990. I rather suspect this was the first recording. It’s interesting music, which Hindmarsh did well to rescue, though it’s not exactly earth-shattering stuff. I particularly enjoyed the third movement, ‘Spider Dance. Spider and the Fly’, which is marked Lento quasi Blues. This is a highly entertaining and rather effective pastiche of 1930s dance band music and Andrew Burn tells us that before composing it Britten consulted the well-known band leader, Geraldo.
 
These are two excellent Britten anthologies conducted by a man who was a noted Britten interpreter. I’m very glad that, however belatedly, I’ve now heard them. The standard of performances is consistently high and Chandos have recorded both programmes in characteristically fine sound. In both cases the booklet notes are well worth reading - Lewis Foreman contributes the notes for the Spring Symphony disc. Even if you have some of the repertoire in your collection already I’d suggest you don’t make the mistake I made when these discs were first released and pass them by: both are well worth your attention.
 
John Quinn 

See also download review by Brian Wilson

Britten discography & review index

 


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