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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 Classical, Op. 25 (1917) [14:01]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Simple Symphony,
Op. 4 for String Orchestra (1934) [17:43]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Symphony in C major (1855) [32:02]
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
rec. 1987, no venue details supplied

There have been other conductorless orchestras but few have been as successful as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1972 and still going strong. You might think that working without a conductor would create problems of coordination and interpretation. In fact, at least with Orpheus, the players clearly listen to one another and develop their interpretation together. If you doubt that this can be done as well as under a conductor listen to the slow movement of the Bizet here and note the perfect balance of the chords and also between the strings and the wind. This can be appreciated while enjoying the beautiful playing of the solo oboe soaring above the other instruments.

The sleeve-note is, rather strangely, completely silent about Orpheus. However, an excellent note by Paul Griffiths suggests that all three works on this disc can be considered classical or rather neo-classical. He reminds us that they were all produced when their composers were young: Prokofiev was twenty-five, Britten twenty and Bizet just seventeen. Haydn hovers as a presence in the background but otherwise what is noticeable is how completely each composer is himself even at an early age.

Prokofiev composed his Classical Symphony in explicit homage to Haydn. He also wrote it for a Haydn-sized orchestra and on the same scale. In this it stands apart from his other symphonies though the themes are characteristically Prokofievian. The treatment is also surprisingly Haydnesque, with, for example, sudden changes of key which at first may seem so modernistic, in fact being also characteristic of the older composer. It is a really charming work and Prokofiev liked the third movement gavotte so much himself that he re-used it, slightly expanded, in his Romeo and Juliet ballet.

Britten’s Simple Symphony is for string orchestra. It reuses themes which went back to the composer’s boyhood. Don’t be misled by Britten’s facetious movement titles: I Boisterous Bourrée, II. Playful Pizzicato, III. Sentimental Saraband, IV. Frolicsome Finale. Although this is a small work, it is more substantial than it at first appears. It led directly on to the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge of a few years later. The second movement is entirely in pizzicato. Britten may have got the idea for this from the Ravel string quartet, whose second movement is also entirely pizzicato, but this is also the most characteristically Brittenish movement of the four. The third movement belies its title of Sentimental Saraband; it is in triple time but it is not at all sentimental, being a serious elegy with a rather Mahlerian second theme. It is arguably slightly too long and weighty for the work, though it is lovely in itself. The whole work is rather more than the jeu d’esprit which its title suggests.

Bizet’s youthful symphony, though the first of these three to be composed, was the last to be performed, since Bizet did not perform or publish the work. The score only came to notice when it was given to the library of the Paris Conservatoire in 1933, and was first performed two years later. Griffiths compares it to early Schubert, which is apt, since it is in correct classical form though with themes which tend to be lyrical rather than terse. However, as he also mentions, when he wrote it in 1855 Schubert’s symphonies had yet to be published, so he arrived in a rather similar place by a different route, in fact a study of Gounod’s First Symphony. It is a cheerful work with plenty of rushing around for the violins and much repeating of its very attractive themes. I have already mentioned the slow movement. The first is vigorous, the third galumphs happily and the finale scurries around to great effect.

These performances are beautifully prepared, fresh and sparkling. Though they date from as far back as 1987 they still sound warm, in a natural acoustic. I think the microphones must have been adjusted between the Britten and the Bizet because the orchestra’s balance is slightly different. The ear soon adjusts. There is a lovely bloom on the sound throughout. This is one of those DG issues where the same sleeve-note is not translated into three other languages but each language gets its own.

There are other versions of all these pieces, though none I think of exactly this programme. Marriner is a contender in the Prokofiev and the Bizet and Britten is hors concours in his own work. If this programme suits, go for it: it is a joyous disc.

Stephen Barber



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