It is not often I get to review classical music written by a composer I've seen in the flesh. But this collection of key orchestral music by Benjamin Britten takes me back to a concert in 1971 in King's College Chapel where Britten conducted Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, just prior to his well known studio recording [Decca 448 170-2]. Britten was a wonderful conductor and pianist, in addition to being the leading British composer of his time.
How apt that he should take a theme (the Rondo for Abdelazar) from Henry Purcell, arguably the greatest British composer of all time, as the basis for his early masterpiece, the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. This music was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to accompany a film, The Instruments of the Orchestra. But don't be fooled – this is a work of the highest merit, like his Simple Symphony or Bizet's Symphony in C, approachable to youngsters but rewarding to music lovers of all ages. The thirteen variations which follow the bold statement of the theme show complete mastery of orchestral writing on every instrument in turn and culminate in a fortissimo fugal finale as the theme is restored. This is a most enjoyable version, boldly conceived and well paced. The strings are not quite as clean and lustrous as the LSO in Previn's recording, but the brass and percussion are top not notch, assisted by a superb recording quality. No surprises there, with Professor Keith Johnson at the controls. This is an HDCD recording, so those with HDCD compatible players will get the most out of this disc, but it sounds pretty fine on my EMM Labs CD Player, not so equipped. Sadly the theme, variations and fugue are all lumped together into one track, a minor blemish in an otherwise superb production.
The major work here is the Sinfonia da Requiem, originally commissioned for the Japanese Government in 1940 but immediately rejected by the Japanese as too Christian. Their loss is our gain. It's a 20th century masterpiece to put next to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra or Stravinsky' Rites of Spring. Michael Stern, son of the illustrious Isaac Stern, coaxes an excellent performance form the Kansas City Symphony. The precise military rhythms and the clarity with which Stern weaves all the elements together fully engage the listener. Wonderful playing and superb ensemble combine to illuminate this dark work, made so much more enjoyable by the enormous dynamic range captured by Prof Johnson. Indeed this work responds even better to his ministrations than the Guide.
The concluding work combines four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes with the Passacaglia from the same work. While no substitute for a full scale performance of the opera, these extracts hang together well as concert works, and they all receive strong performances here, especially the lengthy Passacaglia. Stern clearly has a deep understanding of Britten's music and is not the least timid in painting a full Technicolor picture. The orchestra pulls out all the stops for him, making this disc a joy from beginning to end.
For those of you looking for a good introduction the Britten, this disc certainly fits the bill, but it will also satisfy those already familiar with his works. You've certainly never heard Britten's music so well recorded. Kudos to Reference Recordings for a very strong issue all around.
Reference Recordings have just released their first two SACDs – I hope they will consider this disc for a future SACD release.