BRITTEN: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10; Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland, Op. 48a; Simple Symphony, Op. 4 – Malcolm Allison, viola/ London Festival Orchestra/ Ross Pople – Arte Nova

by | Dec 26, 2006 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BRITTEN: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10; Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland, Op. 48a; Simple Symphony, Op. 4 – Malcolm Allison, viola/ London Festival Orchestra/ Ross Pople
 
Arte Nova ANO 340520, 58:11 (Distrib. Allegro) ***:

Recorded 20-21 December 1995, this reissue captures some idiomatic performances of essential Britten repertory. The 1937 Salzburg Festival commission Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, for string orchestra, pays homage to Britten’s composition teacher, whose Idyll No. 2 provided the motivic kernel for the ten variants. Herbert von Karajan was fond of this piece, which shows off both composer and performer. The fourth variant, Aria Italiana, has a fleet delicacy worthy of Britten’s other musical hero, Rossini. Several classical procedures, including the ability to write in dance formats of the past and the use of strict counterpoint in the Fugue section, attest to Britten’s range of musical motion. The Wiener Walzer proves stylistic to the country which gave its premier, playful in its middle section the way Johann Strauss could flirt with exotic sounds. The Funeral March points to Billy Budd and Death in Venice.

Always occupied with Britain’s musical past, Britten often explored the work of Byrd, Purcell, and Dowland. Britten took “If my Complaints Could Passion Move” by Dowland and combined it with another song, “Flow, O my tears,” to create a dark piece – Lachrymae (1950), whose spirit rings with John Donne. The short motives from the viola with spare harmony could have been penned by Webern. Pizzicati over long held notes in the accompanying strings soon yield to a kind of scale pattern, still spare and austere. A middle section achieves some melodic extension, a sad song with uneasy harmonic support, dry in the manner of Stravinsky’s Agon. The unflagging somberness of the last five minues does little to break the Baroque gloom of this work, so it hard to assess the playing of violaist Malcolm Addison except to say he was effectively depressing.

A Simple Symphony (1933) is the happiest of these string works, an arrangement of piano pieces Britten had composed 1923-1926 and scored for his own instruction. Alternately serious and skittish, the music proceeds from the Boisterous Bourree in olden style to the dainty Playful Pizzicato, still a bravura moment in the manner of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony third movement. Nice articulate work in the Sentimental Sarabande, in which Britten reveals a modally melodic gift comparable to that of Holst. Britten concludes the verbal and musical alliteration with Frolicsome Finale, a vivacious, extroverted movement played with suave assurance by the London Festival players, a group which came into existence in 1980.

— Gary Lemco

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