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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1940) [21:36]
Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia Op. 33b (1944) [15:48 + 7:56]
Young person's guide to the orchestra (1946) [15:52]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pešek
rec. Jan 1989, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS REDLINE 7353012 [63:00]

This is a handy and wallet-kind entry appearing in Britten’s centenary year. Those seeking a good way to add Britten's key orchestral works to their listening experience and shelves or virtual library need look no further. More fanatical enthusiasts will have already beaten their path to Decca’s numbered edition (3000 pieces) of The Complete Works. It’s a luxury box comprising 65 CDs, a DVD and a substantial hardback book (4785364). That set is complemented by the EMI Britten Collector’s Edition of which the current disc is CD 1 in that 2009 set of 37 discs. I see that EMI Classics are now bringing out a series of 6-CD themed Britten boxes as a tribute in centenary year. No doubt it will appear there as well. In the past it has served as a bargain price Ultraviolet series entry.
 
Performances and digital recording quality are satisfying. Pešek is notably tender and favours this aspect over the drama. The first movement and finale of the Sinfonia are ravishing in this respect. We are reminded of the finer string writing of Roy Harris and its emotional kernel as well as the influence of Shostakovich. Pešek is up against stern analogue competition from another part of the same stable: LSO/Previn. The latter’s 1970s EMI Classics recording, originally issued in quadrophonic, remains a force in the land and still sounds wonderful. Pešek is, by contrast, understated and lacks the last degree of spectacular bite that I associate with the Previn. Previn’s Anglophile tendencies were well known though otherwise limited to RVW and Walton; so far as early 20th century Brits are concerned; he never moved into Moeran or Bax territory, more’s the pity. His Britten in this case was clearly aided by EMI's elite technical team of the two Christophers - Bishop and Parker. They were also onsite for Previn's Spring Symphony. Their results form an exemplar for the control desk fraternity to this day.
 
All these comments extend to the Grimes pieces. By the way, I am delighted to see the Passacaglia included. The whole has a suitably symphonic sound. So far as Britten's own Decca versions are concerned they are in a class of their own and extend to include the YPG which was not part of the Previn package. By the way Pešek's YPG is in 6 tracks, grouping families of variations with one track for each group and for the Theme and for the final Fugue.
 
No notes whatsoever from Virgin but these three works make a respectable and often touching collection. While Previn remains pre-eminent in the Grimes sequence and the Sinfonia Pešek is much better than merely good.
 
A sturdy entry in the Britten100 lists.
 
Rob Barnett
 

Britten discography & review index