This CD fills an important gap in the Britten discography, containing world
premiere recordings of the Two Portraits, the Double Concerto and the version
for small orchestra of the Sinfonietta. The CD begins with "Young Apollo"
for piano, string quartet and string orchestra (1939). A characterful
seven-minute flourish, it anticipates minimalism, particularly Michael Nyman,
sounding like brief phrases snatched from Schubert variously repeated rather
than developed symphonically.
The Double Concerto (1932) with violin and viola soloists is more conservative
in idiom, betraying some influence of Frank Bridge (Britten's teacher at
he end of the 1920s). The Rhapsody is affecting whilst the Finale is an
imaginatively scored Tarantella. Colin Matthews has scored the work from
Britten's own sketches, claiming the result "virtually 100% Britten"
The Two Portraits of 1930 are less adventurous. The first, inspired by a
schoolfriend, is a Mahlerian movement for strings with touches of Berg. The
second is a lyrical self-portrait (the viola was Britten's own instrument).
The influence of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony on Britten's Sinfonietta is
matched by a strong element of Englishness, as exemplified by Bridge and
Ireland, in the score.
The recording (in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall) is quite reverberant and
details in the instrumentation are sometimes lost. Whilst the playing of
all three soloists is of the highest quality throughout the disc, the Halle
strings occasionally sound thin and overstretched by the music. One has only
to imagine Britten himself conducting the First Portrait (judging by the
composer's own classic recordings of his Simple Symphony and Frank Bridge
Variations) to realise how much more vibrant and passionate the string playing
could be. Nonetheless, this disc is welcome for its enterprising repertoire
and for illustrating Britten's burgeoning talent. It could turn out to be
the most important recording of Kent Nagano's tenure as Music Director of
the Halle Orchestra.