Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra [Variations and Fugue on a Theme of
Ernst von Dohnamyi
Variations on a Nursery Tune*
Felix Slatkin conducting the
Concert Arts Symphony Orchestra (*Victor Aller, piano)
Review by Wayne Donnelly
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LP Stock Number:
S/P 8373 [Cisco Music reissue]
The Cisco kids have retrieved these hearty performances from the dark recesses of the Capitol Records archives and given them the full audiophile treatment -- remastered from the original master tapes, pressed on flawless 180-gram vinyl and packaged in a beautiful facsimile of the original LP liner. These two works would seem to have a lot in common: musical genre (theme and variations), mood (playful and extroverted), and
targeted audience (youth -- although that is somewhat misleading with
Given his distinguished accomplishments as composer, pianist and conductor, Benjamin Britten is arguably the pre-eminent 20th-century English classical musician. Although he has written many more profound and important works, nothing in the Britten canon comes close to the almost universal popularity of the Guide. Not only does it provide a lucid and easy-to-follow demonstration of the instruments and sections of a symphony orchestra -- even without the spoken identifications, which are mercifully omitted here -- but it is also a delightfully entertaining showpiece for virtuoso orchestra. Among the countless recordings of the
Guide, I especially admire those by Britten/London Symphony and
Giulini/Philharmonia. (By the way, the Britten is sonically spectacular if you can find the LP; the CD is also excellent.
The smallish-sounding Concert Arts Symphony Orchestra (a nom de microphone for the Twentieth Century Fox Orchestra) as heard here is nowhere near the level of the two above-mentioned British ensembles, but I find it impossible not to like their performance. Conductor
Slatkin, normally the orchestra's concertmaster as well as first violinist of the great Hollywood String Quartet, elicits vital, exuberant playing -- a bit rough-hewn but charming nonetheless.
Dohnamyi's Variations is a curious piece. It is not a piano concerto, although that instrument is prominently featured in a
concertante role throughout. And, while it is founded on one of the simplest, most universal "nursery tunes" (in English, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"), it is not a children's piece. Rather, Dohnamyi appears to have conceived an elaborate -- portentous, even -- musical joke, putting the theme through variations ranging from lyrical to almost absurdly bombastic. This wacky work is definitely worth knowing, and given its relative rarity it is for me the more compelling reason to acquir this LP.
Slatkin and the orchestra give Dohnamyi the same kind of committee performance as in the
Britten. Pianist Aller is superb, easily encompassing his part's expressive range and virtuoso demands.
I understand that in the early stereo years Capitol favored a three-microphone scheme, much as did Mercury with the Living Presence series. To my ear this recording does not quite match the extraordinary inner detail and high-frequency presence that characterized the contemporaneous
Mercurys, but the present record does exhibit a pleasing warmth and a generally good sense of the orchestra playing in a real space -- although to my ear it seems a somewhat restricted space, probably a studio. Reproduction of the piano is excellent, sonorous and well-balanced.
Although I would not want to limit myself to this recording of the Britten, I am happy to enjoy the performance on its own terms. I confess I am not familiar with other recordings of the
Dohnamyi, but I find this one quite satisfactory. And the recorded sound makes one long for those wonderfully primitive three-microphone days.