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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Simple Symphony (1934)
Nocturne (1958)*
Rosa Mistica (1939)^
Les Illuminations (1939)*
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor)*
Eton College Chapel Choir^; Ralph Allwood^
London Mozart Players/Jane Glover
Rec July 1989, All Saints Church, Newcastle (Simple Symphony), July 1989 St Barnabas Church Tooting, London (Nocturne, Les Illuminations), April 2000 Eton College Chapel (Rosa Mistica)
ASV PLATINUM PLT 8503 [71.03] Budget price


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An interesting programme mixing two blazing masterpieces with two minor but engaging works. All save the little known Rosa Mistica are reissues, but the sound quality is uniformly excellent. Eton College Chapel has a pleasing acoustic, just right for setting off the subtle flow of the Rosa Mistica, a charming piece which is treated to a pleasingly sensitive performance under the direction of Ralph Allwood.

That said, the star of the show here is the solo tenor: Anthony Rolfe Johnson. He performs two of Britten's most searching and imaginative compositions, the Nocturne and Les Illuminations, and both performances stand comparison with the best. In this all credit is also due to Jane Glover and the excellent playing of the London Mozart Players. Her collaboration with the orchestra can be viewed in retrospect as a successful artistic enterprise, and this CD bears testimony to their joint achievement.

The rich string sound of the Simple Symphony suits the music very well. This may not be the most searching piece Britten composed, but it has a pleasing immediacy and Glover finds just the right touches of phrasing and tempi.

The Nocturne is, as its title would suggest, a dark piece, both in manner and expressiveness. The performers combine to telling effect, and there is some fine solo playing in the various obbligati, captured amid an ample yet clear acoustic by the engineers.

Les Illuminations, composed in 1939 soon after Britten had settled in America, is one of the works that confirmed him as a significant figure in the genius class. The inspiration came from the strange, visionary poems of Arthur Rimbaud, and the music responds to every opportunity of conveying the special flavours of the text and its imageries. Scored for a string orchestra, there is no lack of contrast, and Jane Glover produces a well paced interpretation which is dramatic at the one extreme, sensitive at the other. But above all it is Rolfe Johnson who steals the show. This music was conceived for a soprano voice (that of Sophie Wyss), but it can work well enough with a tenor, as Peter Pears proved.

Rolfe Johnson transcends descriptions like 'well enough', however, and he gives us arguably the finest interpretation by a male singer. He copes particularly well with the high and strenuous lines. His opening cry of 'J'ai seul le clef de cette parade' makes a thrilling effect which sets the tone for all that follows.

This is a distinguished issue/reissue, but alas it is marred by a poorly designed and edited booklet. It contains far too much small and indecipherable print, while inexplicably and inexcusably the texts of the Nocturne and Les Illuminations are omitted. A pity, since the artists deserve better.

Terry Barfoot

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