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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, op. 31 [24:58]
Variation on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op.10 [26:41]
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell) op.34 [18:27]
Soirées Musicales (selection, arr. Britten) [7:54]
Peter Pears (tenor), Dennis Brain (horn)
New Symphony Orchestra/Eugene Goosens
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Philharmonia Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1959 (Serenade), 1954 (Bridge Variations), 1962 (Young Person’s Guide), 1957 (Soirées Musicales).
ALTO ALC1413 [78:20]

Four works by Benjamin Britten, four different conductors – Goosens, Karajan, Giulini and Boult. These re-issues, which have been mastered for Alto by Paul Arden-Taylor, are of recordings originally made in the 50s and 60s, and all are well worth re-visiting.

Dennis Brain was an exceptionally gifted horn player; but even those gifts could not enable him to make a recording two years after his death! Alto have given the date of the first work on the disc, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, as 1959, two years after Brain’s tragic death in a car accident, on his way back to London from an Edinburgh Festival concert, in 1957.

Never mind; it’s wonderful to have this re-mastering of a historic, virtually legendary recording. Pears and Brain had participated in the premiere back in 1943, along with the Boyd Neel String Orchestra. Here they were together again a decade later in 1953, this time with Eugene Goossens, a distinguished conductor and brilliant musician (who was soon to be embroiled in the scandal that resulted from his involvement with the ‘Witch of Kings Cross’, Rosaleen Norton).

This is a wonderful recording for many reasons, but principally because it has the immediacy of a ‘live’ concert. The work is book-ended by a Prologue and Epilogue for the solo horn. Britten specifically requires the horn player to play these two passages without use of the valves, as on a ‘natural’ horn. Listeners need to be aware of that, because some of the notes sound out of tune, including a high concert D that wobbles between D and E flat. These days, the Prologue would have been re-taken; I’m so glad they didn’t do that – I’m convinced Britten would have been delighted!

Peter Pears’s voice was probably at its very best at this time. It all sounds wonderfully effortless, while the great tenor’s later recordings show more strain on his part with the high-lying passages – not that that is a serious problem. But the lightness and clarity of the voice here is a thing of very great beauty.

Although I knew it existed, I hadn’t heard this Karajan performance of the Bridge Variations before. I’m not quite sure why I was so surprised at how successful it is - perhaps I hadn’t expected Karajan to oversee such a stylish performance. Certainly the Philharmonia strings do him proud, and although this doesn’t outshine Britten’s own recording, it is brilliantly exciting and full of character. This may be an early work (Britten was just 24 at the time of its 1937 premiere at the Salzburg Festival), but it is a masterpiece, and unmistakably characteristic of its creator. Despite the limitations of the recorded sound, the qualities of this performance come over with power and clarity.

Giluini’s 1962 recording of the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell (lovingly known to all as the ‘YPG’) is less impressive. His initial presentation of the theme is tame and rather slow, and although it is an honest and well prepared performance, it just lacks the ‘tingle factor’ that you can get not only from Britten and the LSO on Decca, but from several other excellent recordings, such as Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati SO on Telarc. However, the orchestral playing here is very fine, and the magic of the piece shines through, even if the conclusion is a bit of a let-down.

Finally we have Britten’s orchestrations of some of Rossini’s Soirées Musicales – his ‘Sins of Old Age’ written when he had long ago given up writing operas. They are expertly arranged by Britten, and are huge fun, especially when given in such spritely performances as Boult gets from the LPO.

All in all a fascinating and hugely enjoyable disc, and I feel grateful to Alto for putting this issue together. It would be worth obtaining for the re-mastering of the great Serenade recording alone.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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