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Britannia
Sir Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1 & 4
Peter Maxwell Davies: An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Three Screaming Popes, after Francis Bacon
Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem
James MacMillan: Britannia

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles, conductor

Review By Joe Milicia

  With Britannia for a title, the White Cliffs of Dover for the cover art, and a program framed by two Pomp and Circumstance marches and including Peter Maxwell Davies' best-known excursion into light classical territory, his Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise (featuring bagpipes, no less), one might expect this entire CD to be a collection of Pops favorites. Perhaps Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite might be thrown in, or Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (his variations on a Purcell theme). But the Britten selection is instead his somber Sinfonia da Requiem, and the disc includes Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Screaming Popes, of all things. The one other piece on the program gives the CD its title, but James MacMillan's Britannia is a somewhat thorny Charles-Ivesian collage of tunes from around the UK. So the appeal of this CD might be mainly to fans of Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles and his American forces, or those who like their potpourri with a sharp tang.

Actually, Turnage's response to Bacon's horrific reimagining of a famous Velasquez portrait is not as violently expressionistic as one might expect, except for some brief shrieking chords near the end of the 16-minute piece. The premiere recording by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was originally released as a CD "single" by EMI in the late 1980s—which doesn't exactly stamp the piece as Pops material, but surely suggested that the label expected it to appeal to a wider audience. It's a work for large orchestra, including saxophones and (often muted) brass that seems to revel in kaleidoscopic orchestral colors. Ostinato rhythms recall Stravinsky or Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, but there are quiet passages too, seemingly too abstract to be called moody, menacing, or whatever adjectives might connect with Bacon's nightmarish canvases. Telarc's program notes suggest that Turnage, an East Ender in origin, brings a "punk sensibility into classical music, deploying his in-your-face assaults with exhilarating energy, but contrasting them with music of gripping tenderness and deep emotion." I can't say I've ever associated punk sensibility with "gripping tenderness," nor did I hear tenderness in this particular piece — or really much of an "in-your-face assault" either; but much of it is indeed exhilarating.

Scotsman MacMillan's 1994 Britannia is a curiosity. It's described by the composer as a "celebration of the British orchestra," and also as a "ten-minute orchestral fantasy based on ‘patriotic themes.'" It certainly makes demands upon the players, and recalls the very American Charles Ives, not only in the moments of cacophony as snatches of marches and other tunes (including a boisterous phrase from Elgar's Cockaigne Overture) collide, but also in the passages of melancholy quiet that suddenly follow the outbursts. There are prominent toots of auto horns near the end, which may say something about British traffic, or perhaps be a nose-thumbing gesture, but will surely make many listeners think of An American in Paris instead.

Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), dedicated to his late parents but clearly influenced too by the onset of WWII, is a 20-minute work in three connected movements, labeled Lacrymosa, Dies irae, and Requiem aeternam: a funeral march, scherzo and finale. The powerful grief of the first movement gives way to skittering agitation, followed by an affirmative conclusion akin to one of Leonard Bernstein's reconciliatory finales, though with a quiet, steadily pulsing finish. Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony are truly radiant as they rise to the climax of the finale and subside, but the first two movements are more ordinary. The composer's own Decca/London recording with the New Philharmonia has a gripping authority, and Simon Rattle's 1986 EMI digital version with the City of Birmingham Symphony has a bit more overtly emotional display (more expressive dragging in the first movement, for example, and grander climaxes). Part of the problem of the new CD for me is the sound. I had an inadequate sense of directionality — i.e., very little pinpointing of woodwind location or separation between instruments — everything was in a wash of sound. On both the older recordings the heavy drumbeats in the first movement are far more fierce and penetrating, and the solo saxophone in the second movement rises more poignantly from the rest of the orchestra. (I listened to the Telarc SACD in Red Book stereo and the Decca and EMI performances in their LP originals.)

The Orkney Wedding is spectacularly played, with plenty of swagger and flourish in the many folk-tune solos, as the music veers from toe-tapping energy to inebriated tripping and swaying. This performance is very much worth hearing. As for the Pomp and Circumstances marches, they are certainly vigorous — close to manic in their opening sections, and far from stately in what are normally the stately sections. We don't want the ponderous plodding we associate with commencement ceremonies, but other conductors have found ways of conveying pomp (maybe even with a wink) without pomposity. But if Runnicles is aiming to sabotage these British stalwarts, it would be in keeping with the MacMillan piece and the overall oddities of this British program.

 

 

Performance:

Enjoyment: Maxwell Davies / Others

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