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English Music for Strings
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 (1937) [23:37]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Lament, H117 (1915) [3:47]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Serenade for Strings, Op. 12 (1939) [13:01]
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Music for Strings, F123 (1935) [23:56]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 9-11 January 2020, St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London

Anyone reading the diaries Benjamin Britten kept as a young man will be struck by his extraordinary capacity for work. His diary for 1937 reveals that he began sketching the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge at the beginning of June. By 5 July the work was still unfinished, but he began copying out the score. He completed the end of the work in time to send it (by the last post!) on 12 July, and on 15 July he took the Boyd Neel Orchestra through the work for its first rehearsal. Of the final variation, a rapid, chattering affair over which, as the work nears its end, Britten places the theme in longer note values, the young composer wrote ‘I feel rather proud of my 11 part fugue with canto written straight into the score in ink!’.

I confess to being moved by the sheer brilliance of much of Britten’s early music. The word ‘brilliant’ was often used pejoratively when speaking of Britten, and ‘heartless’ has sometimes been added. Both words can, with some justification, be applied to passages in this work. Yet, as that closing fugue subsides into richly scored D major, we realise that here the composer is paying homage, deeply felt, to his admired teacher. This magnificent performance from the Sinfonia of London and John Wilson is one that might support the erroneous view that Britten was very clever but without substance or feeling, and that because it underlines the uncompromising nature of the music. Only in the third variation, ‘Romance’, do we find real tenderness, beautifully brought out here. For the rest, the ‘Aria Italiana’ is taken at an extraordinary lick that reveals the virtuosity of these players, and ‘March’ has such rhythmic point and bite that it is difficult to escape the political atmosphere in which it was composed. The rawness of the writing in ‘Bourrée Classique’ is brilliantly brought out, and ‘Wiener Walzer’, again taken very fast, is Viennese only in so far as Ravel’s La valse is Viennese. The ‘Funeral March’ has rightly been described as Mahlerian, with expressionism, and even Schoenberg, not too distant in this performance.

Britten himself, conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (Decca), takes a good three minutes more over the work than Wilson does, and it comes out as a more forgiving, less neurotically driven and troubled work than Wilson makes of it. This might be the mature composer coming back to his younger self, but I wonder if Wilson is not closer to Britten’s original intentions. At any rate, the homage to Bridge passage is no less moving in Wilson’s hands than it is in those of the composer. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge is a great work that can take a variety of approaches, and this is a great performance.

Bridge’s short Lament, an arrangement of an earlier piano piece, gives a taster of what must have appealed to Britten about Bridge’s music. The hold on tonality can be tenuous, with a very English wistfulness, and there is considerable depth of feeling despite its economy of means. It is a response to a particular First World War tragedy, the sinking of the Lusitania, its noble sadness both augmented and alleviated by the major chord with which it ends.

The opening of Berkeley’s lovely Serenade leads the listener to expect a light-hearted interpretation of the work, but within seconds a sharply delineated contrast between forte and a pianissimo seems to confirm that Wilson is looking for the darker side of this work too. Mezzo-forte will often become a clear forte, forte a clear fortissimo, and the work is thus firmly placed in its historical context. The sharp dissonances of the surprisingly sombre finale are brought out all the more by the impeccable tuning and clear textures in this performance; likewise, the fabulous articulation and delicious staccato playing at the opening of the work is superior to that of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer (Lyrita) or the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with Richard Hickox (Chandos). Those two performances, on their own terms, are both very fine, and many might prefer them, if only because you come away with less impression of wartime music.

A slightly earlier work, Bliss’s three-movement Music for Strings, completes the programme. It is perhaps in this piece, even more than in the others, that the sumptuous sound of the Sinfonia of London comes into its own. From the opening of the Britten onwards we are used to the strong bass line, but here it adds a rock-solid foundation to frequently loaded textures. The musical language is quite advanced, and the work a most satisfying listen. Anyone coming to Bliss’s music by this route will certainly be encouraged to explore the composer further. In the exemplary insert note, Andrew Burn quotes the composer’s description of ‘a difficult work, written for virtuoso players …’ A performance on Naxos, from the English Northern Philharmonia and David Lloyd-Jones is also very fine, but this highly romantic and often exciting music receives an even more virtuoso performance here. It is sumptuously recorded in typical Chandos style.

William Hedley

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