Favourite English Strings
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 (1937) [26:56]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Serenade for Strings, Op. 20 (1888-1892) [11:20]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Romance for String Orchestra, Op. 11 (1928, rev. 1941) [7:36]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Three Idylls for String Quartet (1906): II Allegretto poco lento [3:42]
Two Old English Songs
(1916): Cherry Ripe [3:30]; Sally in our Alley [3:29]
Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 24-27 November 2014, Snellman Hall, Kokkola, Finland
ALBA ABCD387 SACD [57:51]

In addition to his work as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony and of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Sakari Oramo has been the Chief Conductor of the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra since 2013. This isn’t their first CD together but it’s the first time I’ve heard this partnership.

I recall that during his decade as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Oramo conducted quite a lot of English music and he did it pretty well. What was especially pleasing was his readiness to venture off the beaten track. This willingness led him, for example, to conduct not just Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius but also the less frequently heard Apostles and Kingdom. There were also recordings of music by John Foulds (review ~ review). Since he returned to the UK to lead the BBC Symphony Orchestra English music has featured quite strongly in his programmes, not least the inclusion of William Alwyn’s First Symphony in the 2014 Proms. The reason I mention all this is because it offers strong evidence not only of Oramo’s credentials in English repertoire but, more significantly, that he’s explored this music not out of a sense of duty because he happens to be working in the UK but because it’s a genuine enthusiasm.

He makes a very good job of the pieces on this disc. Star billing, I suppose, goes to Britten’s dazzlingly accomplished and inventive Bridge Variations. Right at the start Oramo and the engineers conspire to present a vivid, clear sound in which all strands of the orchestra can be heard with clarity. The orchestra is quite small (5/5/4/3/2) but there’s no lack of weight. Oramo’s way with the ‘March’ is brisk and bracing but in the following third variation, ‘Romance’, the playing is suitably graceful. There’s plenty of dash in the ‘Aria Italiana’ and terrific energy in the ‘Moto perpetuo’. Despite the relatively small body of strings there’s good weight and intensity in the ‘Funeral March’. In the concluding ‘Fugue and Finale’ the fugue is athletic with fine spring in the dotted rhythms and then the slow, intense finale is done with great feeling. This is a very well-played and well-conducted account of the work. The string sound is sinewy and the playing polished.

Britten took as his theme the second of his teacher’s Three Idylls for String Quartet. That music is on Oramo’s programme too but I think Alba have missed a trick here. Would it not have made much better sense to place the Bridge Idyll immediately before the Britten piece that it inspired? Instead we have to wait until much later in the programme to hear it – unless one programmes the CD player appropriately.

Elgar’s enchanting Serenade comes off well in Oramo’s hands. There’s a very nice lilt to the first movement in which the rhythms are nicely pointed. There’s an affectionate air to the performance and that comes through even more strongly in the wistful Larghetto. My only quibble about this Elgar performance is that I don’t really hear sufficient warmth from the strings. The sinewy sound that was so well suited to the Britten works a little less well here – and in the Finzi. However, that’s a personal reaction and other listeners may hear the sound differently.

The Finzi piece is very nicely done; Oramo makes the music flow well. Bridge’s Two Old English Songs come off well. However, the track-listing has the two pieces the wrong way round: I’ve listed them in their correct order in the heading to this review.

I listened to this hybrid SACD on my conventional CD player and got very good results. It’s an attractive programme of music that is very well played and recorded.

John Quinn

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