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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra [16.53]
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Eduard van Beinum
Peter Grimes - Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia Op. 33a/b: Dawn [3.31]; Sunday Morning [2.24]; Moonlight [4.21]; Storm [4.13]; Passacaglia [5.34]
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Benjamin Britten
Simple Symphony Op. 4 Boisterous Bourree [2.35]; Playful Pizzicato [3.17]; Sentimental Sarabande [7.25]; Frolicsome Finale [2.52]
I Musici/Felix Ayo
Sinfonia da Requiem: Lacrymosa [8.15]; Dies Irae [5.19]; Requiem Aeternam [6.08]
Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
rec. 1955, 1958, 1959 and 1957
REGIS RRC1417 [73:08]

On the face of it this collection should be rather special but in reality it is a huge disappointment. The van Beinum YPGO was one of the glories of the 1950s Decca catalogue and it still sounds remarkably good with sweet strings, excellent balance and superb orchestral execution. There are some spots of distortion towards the end of the fugue but the biggest drawback is the choice of some very slow tempi by the conductor. It opens sluggishly and ends with a tentative low voltage fugue. Even the entry of Purcell's theme in the closing pages - one of the great moments in orchestral music - doesn't quite register as it should.

Decca's complete Peter Grimes is a classic of the gramophone. The excerpts included here are taken from that set. The big giveaway is in Dawn where the music fades in at the beginning and out at the end. Concert performances of the Sea Interludes don't have this problem. This is most unsatisfactory for repeated hearing but the main drawback is the quality of the transfer. It sounds like a clumsy restoration from vinyl. Background noise comes and goes. It is bad enough through speakers but it's a total write-off if you choose to listen through headphones. This is a poor representation of what is still a superb recording.

Felix Ayo rescues the day with a fine version of the Simple Symphony. No complaints about the sound quality here either. Maybe the Playful Pizzicato is more playful in the hands of Britten conducting the ECO but Ayo runs him close.

The Sinfonia da Requiem brings the CD to a depressing close. This wonderful music should be blood-chilling but here it sounds dull and laboured. This is a remarkable dud considering what a great conductor Britten was. This must have been one of those days when there were no sparks flying in the studio. The sound quality also suffers from high background noise, almost certainly caused by the engineers during the transfer of this current issue. I would still go for Previn and the LSO in the Sinfonia. This EMI recording captures an orchestra on top form with a conductor who inspired them to achieve wonders. The recording quality is superlative. There's simply no contest.

Even at budget price it would be false economy to buy this CD. I'm sorry I can't be more positive.

John Whitmore

Britten discography & review index