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Works for String Orchestra
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Ballade for string orchestra (1947) [16:11]
Bernard STEVENS (1916-1983)
Sinfonietta for strings (1948) [15:08]
Andrzej PANUFNIK (1914-1991)
Lullaby ‘Kolysanka’ for 29 strings and 2 harps (1947) [6:11]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Variations on the name ‘Gabriel Fauré’ for harp and string orchestra (1945) [18:20]
The Boyd Neel Orchestra/Boyd Neel
rec. BBC Broadcast 31 January 1961. ADD/mono
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra (1950) [13:41]
London Chamber Orchestra/Anthony Bernard
rec. BBC Broadcast 20 March 1961. ADD/mono
Reviewed as streamed from Qobuz 
LYRITA REAM1117 [69:34]

First an apology: the review CDs seem to have gone absent without leave – not guilty, M’Lud – so this review has perforce been made from the streamed Qobuz version, with additional information obtained from Naxos Music Library: Qobuz offer neither booklet nor rear insert; NML at least offer the latter.

This is a further instalment of the Lyrita releases of music recorded on the best equipment of the time by their founder, Richard Itter. It’s particularly valuable in that it makes available music which has not found much of a home on CD: the Benjamin Ballade exists in just one other recording (Marco Polo, download only, with Symphony No.1), the Berkeley Sinfonietta otherwise only on another Lyrita recording (ECO/Del Mar), the Panufnik Lullaby otherwise only in an all-Panufnik programme (CPO) and the Bax Variations otherwise only on Dutton. This is the only recording of the Stevens Sinfonietta.

I’m not suggesting that this is a programme of essential music – for that you need to turn to other recordings from Lyrita’s excellent catalogue of twentieth-century first. You’ll find that at MusicWeb-International where most of the CDs are listed with links to reviews and where all are offered at attractive prices.

Most of the music on the new CD is performed by the Boyd Neel chamber orchestra, notable in the latter days of 78s and the early LP era for recordings of baroque, classical and contemporary music. Their LPs of the Handel Op.6 Concerti Grossi with continuo provided by Thurston Dart were still selling well, and welcomed by reviewers, in bogus stereo on the Eclipse label as late as 1970. That set is still available inexpensively, download only, in decent transfers from Naxos Classical Archives and still sounds attractive, with Dart’s continuo just audible in a way that too often is not the case now.

It’s their way with twentieth-century music that concerns us here. Benjamin Britten is quoted as saying of them, ‘Let us composers, too, remember what Boyd Neel has done for us. Not only has he asked for and used new music but – here’s the difference – he has used it many times. If Boyd Neel and his orchestra like and believe in new music, they play it over and over again until the audience get used to it and begin to like it too; not for it a first performance and then the dusty shelf.’ There’s a Beulah reissue of their recordings of Britten’s Simple Symphony (rec.1939), Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (1944, with Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten) and Frank Bridge Variations (1949). A good transfer of attractive performances in, inevitably, rather dated but tolerable sound. (2PD14 – Download News 2013/4).

None of the works here are of comparable quality with the Britten and none of them were new when Boyd Neel performed them in 1961, so that his orchestra had, indeed, had time to absorb them and allow their listeners to do so, too.

Arthur Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba has all but displaced all his other music in the public awareness. Don’t expect his Ballade to share its immediate appeal but after just one hearing the Boyd Neel performance persuaded me that I shall want to do exactly what that Britten quotation suggests that these performers were so good at: getting us used to the music and liking it too. Even on the second hearing I found myself doing just that – liking it. There’s an overall lightness of touch but plenty of depth too.

Bernard Stevens’ music has really fallen out of fashion – if, indeed, it ever was more than a minority interest. Only one other recording of his orchestral music survives: the Violin Concerto and Symphony No.2 from Ernst Kovacic, the BBC Philharmonic and Edward Downes on Meridian, plus another Meridian now download only (Cello Concerto and Liberation Symphony, Edward Downes again) and a small handful of piano recordings.

Stevens has been suggested as the musical link between Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells and the more demandingly ‘modern’ Robert Simpson and his Sinfonietta aptly fits that description. Don’t be fooled by the diminutive of the title – much less apt than in the case of the Berkeley work which concludes the CD. Nevertheless, much of the music is as mellifluous as VW, albeit sometimes with the intensity of the Tallis Fantasia, and even the ‘tougher’ parts are less ‘advanced’ than the link with Simpson might suggest.

Panufnik’s Lullaby ‘Kolysanka’ – the Polish word means the same as the English title – is a strangely haunting piece, as if a traditional cradle-song were being viewed through a twentieth-century distorting mirror. I use the word ‘haunting’ deliberately: it’s both compelling and slightly spooky.

The Bax Variations introduce a welcome note of levity into an otherwise fairly serious programme. At times the Boyd Neel Orchestra almost sound like the silver strings of Mantovani in their performance. If I suggest this as a candidate for Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night, I don’t mean that at all dismissively.

The Berkeley Sinfonietta, too, lives up to the diminutive in its title. I don’t recall encountering the London Chamber Orchestra or Anthony Bernard, though I doubtless heard them on the radio. They recorded Lennox Berkeley’s Divertimento in B-flat under the auspices of the British Council on 78s. On its release the composer was dismissed as ‘a light-weight – rather a hangover from the Twenties, I fear … a composer of small ideas’. How wrong that judgment was to be proved – and, in any case, the Sinfonietta in this performance proves that ‘light-weight’ can be attractive, if not especially memorable.

Like the earlier releases in the Itter series that I have heard, the recording is much more than tolerable throughout – significantly better than I recall obtaining a couple of years later with a Ferrograph from Radio 3. There’s a touch of shrillness at times but no distortion.

I can’t report on the booklet: Qobuz don’t provide it and Naxos Music Library offer only the back insert.

Collectors of Lyrita’s recordings of British music, both on their main label in stereo and those from the Itter collection of mostly mono transfers from tape, will need no urging to obtain this release; they may even have done so already and will not, I’m sure, have been disappointed. As a confirmed fan of the label since the days of LP, seeking out the CDs even when they were only of limited availability, I greatly enjoyed it. Others should perhaps look first at some of the other wonderful offerings from Lyrita.

Brian Wilson



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