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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1945) [16:38]
Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Variaciones Concertantes (1953) [22:08]
Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra (1941) [17:28]
Minneapolis Symphony/Antal Doráti
rec. Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis, USA, 5-7 February 1953 (Gould), 20 November 1954 (Britten; Ginastera)
DORÁTI EDITION ADE007 [56:14]

This is the second disc I have reviewed released under the aegis of the Antal Doráti Centenary Society. At first glance the programme looks both interesting and enjoyable - and with the emphasis on orchestral display something that would be right up this conductor's street. Unfortunately, it proves to be nearly completely disappointing. I find it hard to believe that even ardent admirers of this great conductor's work would actively seek out these performances.

All three works were recorded for Mercury in the early 1950s in mono. Just about the only information the liner provides is that this incarnation is the first CD release for the Britten and Ginastera and the first European CD release of the Gould. I enjoyed very much the earlier disc of Doráti conducting Doráti but lamented the absence of any proper liner. Here, with the music-making of far less interest the repeated absence of any documentation just adds to the frustration.

Britten's great Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra receives as humdrum a performance as I have ever heard - for those interested this is recorded in the orchestra-only version without narration. I was curious to hear Doráti in British music because his very extended and diverse discography lacks much if any. My conclusion from this performance is he simply did not like it very much. Putting aside the considerable sonic limitations, this is a remarkably prosaic performance. From the outset the main Purcell theme is presented in a very laboured - old-fashioned one might say - manner. It has a certain grandeur but the penalty of such a tempo is that it dictates the speed of the closing fugue too - so here the work is flanked by a pair of leaden sections with the glorious return of the Purcell theme simply dull. There is some nice characterisation of the wind solos - I like the perky bassoon variation and likewise the clarinet. The violas blot their copybook with someone moving off a sustained note too soon in their variation. The trumpet variation is a major disappointment with Doráti choosing a very rum-ti-tum speed. A version I would never bother listening to ever again.

The original LP coupling of the Ginastera Variaciones Concertantes is a logical and good one. Ginastera did not write that many works for orchestra alone and this must be one of the best of them. It really does show up his skill as an orchestrator. The interest in comparison to the Britten is where he featured sections of the orchestra, Ginastera spotlights section principals hence the concertante title. In doing so he exposes those players to some of the hardest orchestral solos in the repertoire. The playing of the Minneapolis orchestra is considerably better here than in the Britten - to the point I wondered if most of the rehearsal preparation time was spent on this work. Especially so since the work dates from just a year before this recording so I assume this was its premiere on disc. Certainly the unnamed leader, principal violist and cellist play their variations especially well. Another frustration is that there are no track divisions or titles on this CD. So it is not clear - unless the work is known from other versions how skilfully Ginastera mixes up the character of the various variations from the perpetual motion variation of the violin to the pastoral variation of the horn. Ginastera brings all the elements together in a rousing closing Rondo Variation for the whole orchestra. This is as close in the work as he gets to his music in populist vein such as the Estancia dances. It gets an energetic performance here but not of such exceptional quality to overcome the mono sound. Other - much finer - versions exist again questioning why anyone would turn to this disc. I particularly enjoy the version from the RPO on their own short-lived Tring label which benefits from excellent sound and very good playing. I prefer it to the version from  Gisčle Ben-Dor with the LSO originally on Koch and latterly on Naxos but that too is far preferable to the version under consideration here.

Morton Gould's Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra featured on one of the first LP's I was ever given - a very crackly pressing on Everest from Walter Susskind and the LSO. This work was the piece with which Gould 'broke through' in the world of concert hall compositions. In five short and characterful movements it is a piece of great fun and considerable compositional skill. To this day I enjoy it greatly and given Doráti's good track record with American music I expected this to be impressive. Sadly not - again it is not the positively poor performance that the Britten receives but it lacks either the humour or the drama that Susskind finds in spades. Curiously for such an instantly appealing work it does not seem to have received a modern recording. Gould appears in a fairly piece-meal fashion in the catalogue. There is quite a lot of his music to be found but scattered across labels and artists. Aside from Susskind the only other version I know is also over fifty years old, also on Mercury with Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra where it was coupled with more Gould and Samuel Barber's Medea. Technically it is interesting to hear how Mercury progressed between the adequate mono of 1953 and the early, rather garishly-lit stereo of 1959. But garish applies to Hanson interpretation too. In fact returning to the Susskind - I have it in the Bay Cities CD transfer where it was coupled with an Antheil Symphony - aside from quite a high level of tape-hiss the recording as well as the interpretation sound very good indeed. For some reason this work is individually tracked on this new CD release.

I find the total lack of any documentation bemusing - some detailing of why when and how this repertoire was chosen would critically support the reason and context for this disc's existence. Without it and thereby falling back onto musical and technical grounds alone there is no reason to purchase this at all except for die-hard Doráti completists.

Nick Barnard


 

 




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