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
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
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.