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BRITTEN: Var. on a Theme of Frank Bridge; Lachrymae; Elegy for Strings; Simple Symphony; 2 Portraits – Camerata Nordica/ Terje Tønnesen – BIS

BRITTEN: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; Lachrymae; Elegy for Strings; Simple Symphony; Two Portraits – Camerata Nordica/ Terje Tønnesen – BIS SACD BIS-2060, 81:04 [11/19/13] (Distr. by Naxos) ****:

This is a most welcome collection of Britten’s music, ably performed by the Camerata Nordica. Most notable is a premiere recording of Britten’s Elegy for Strings, which was first heard in a BBC Proms concert in August of 2013.

Britten, who was born in 1913, was inspired by music he heard his mother sing when he was a child. The young boy was an early musical prodigy, and at age 11 was ‘discovered’ by Frank Bridge, a composer taken by the works of Bartok and Schoenberg.

The first piece on this collection is Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, written in 1937.  It was designed to show his teacher his creativity and virtuosity. The performance on this disc is excellent with wonderful dynamics well captured on the SACD layer.

There is also a fine performance of the Simple Symphony, a work Britten based around compositions he created when he was age 10-13. Designed to be played by less experienced musicians at the time, the Simple Symphony was one of the few symphonies Britten wrote.

Following is Lachrymae for solo viola and small string orchestra. It’s a fantasia, based on the songs of John Dowland. Catherine Bullock has a fine outing on the viola. The piece has been fairly widely recorded, and this version is as good as any I have heard both in performance and sonics.

Next we have Two Portraits, originally a work designed to be portraits of two people and Britten himself. What Britten actually finished was his own musical portrait and one of David Layton, a student and friend at Trinity College.

Finally, we have the premiere recording of the Elegy for Strings written when Britten was 14. It’s an assured composition by the young composer, and it’s good to have it in the catalog for the first time.

A word about the recording: SACD recordings seem to be made for string instruments, and this disc is no exception. It’s well-recorded with musicians up front and the sound of the hall well captured in the rear channels. I think the only element missing is the deepest low end.  Still, the sound is quite well balanced and the placement of instruments is well—guitar-Eskelinen defined.

So we have an excellent collection of Britten with a bonus of something new.

—Mel Martin

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