ELGAR: "Pomp and Circumstance" March Nos. 1 & 4. MAXWELL DAVIES: An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. TURNAGE: Three Screaming Popes. MACMILLAN: Britannia. BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles.
Telarc CD-80677 (F) (DDD) TT: 71:48

Schizophrenic. This CD features music from three eras of British music from the last hundred years: the ages of Elgar, Britten, and Peter Maxwell Davies. Mark-Anthony Turnage and James MacMillan both show the influence of Maxwell Davies.

Donald Runnicles does best with Maxwell Davies and beyond. He turns in a streamlined Elgar P & C No. 4, which kind of works. However, it fails miserably in the first march. It sounds as if he can't wait to get finished. I grew up with Barbirolli. Barbirolli took his time without ever dragging. It gave these works a gravitas and a complexity largely missing from Runnicles, whose tempo reduces these works damn near to triviality -- Elgar as the brainless musical Col. Blimp, an image his hostile critics have loved to push. But Elgar was far more complicated. His contemporaries, after all, regarded the Pomp and Circumstance marches as troubled and full of the harshness of modern life.

The Sinfonia da Requiem, probably a twentieth-century classic, starts out okay, in a kind of limbo. You wait for something to happen. And wait. The first movement, "Lacrymosa," rumbles like the later War Requiem's "Requiem aeternam" and "Libera me." But Runnicles's account seems somehow downright sunny, to the point of turning the Sinfonia into another piece. The score, written in 1939, was the pacifist Britten's fulfillment of a commission from the Japanese government. Britten intended it as a sermon against war. The Japanese considered themselves insulted and refused to perform the work, although they paid Britten's fee. For many years, the composer refused to conduct it, because he considered it "too personal." When he finally took up the piece, he delivered an account that roasts your insides. The first movement, heavy on timpani and bass drum, crushes like the North Atlantic in a storm -- pretty much the brooding atmosphere of Peter Grimes. In the second, the "Dies irae," he slaps you around and guffaws, a Breughelish vision of Hell. The third, "Requiem aeternam," brings only an uneasy rest. You toss and turn throughout eternity. André Previn's reading, on his debut recording as a classical conductor (my introduction to the work), served up a different, though hardly less blistering, reading for Columbia (not currently available). Britten's reaction to Previn: "Wow!" Runnicles's point of view -- again, something more refined and lightweight -- fails the work. It's like listening to Hamlet recited by Betty Boop.

Runnicles does much better with the post-Modern stuff. At the distance of the more than thirty years, since I first encountered his music, it strikes me that Peter Maxwell Davies stands as the most significant composer of his generation. Certainly, he has the most musical progeny. I wish I could trumpet my own prescience, but in 1972 I happened to find myself in London at a performance of the opera Taverner and, a few days later, at a concert featuring the Taverner Variations. I detested both. Since then, with more experience of contemporary music under my belt, the composer has either thrilled me or bored me, with nothing in between. Maxwell Davies's Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise has always reminded me, in an odd way, of Copland's El Salón Mexico -- both a very sophisticated summing-up of contemporary techniques, disguised as Pops pieces. By the way, both composers described their scores as "postcards." Maxwell Davies composes to a program -- and vividly, I might add. The music conjures up dramatic pictures: the guests arriving in the rain, various toasts drunk, the evening degenerating into inebriated lurching about, the band ensemble going to hell, a sentimental slightly tipsy toast to the happy couple, and a bright sunrise as the guests finally go home. One neat feature among many in the work is a passage for the Highland bagpipes. The composer says that, while the bagpipes are not indigenous to the Orkneys (Norwegians ruled the islands during the eighth and ninth centuries), he might be forgiven, since the north of Scotland lies just over the water. Runnicles and Atlanta get the humor and good nature of the piece but at the same time manage to play vividly and with great refinement. This performance won't replace the composer's own on Collins Classics, but it has its own validity.

I always wonder how much listeners get out of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Screaming Popes if they don't know the Francis Bacon paintings. Turnage gives you an atmosphere rather than a translation from pigment to music, but that atmosphere is puzzling and complicated. At least in my case, knowing the pictures brings the work into emotional focus. Turnage's music gets in your face. He has a raw -- some have gone so far to call it "punk" -- sensibility. Runnicles isn't that kind of conductor. He gives you a tough world, but not a nightmarish one. On the other hand, the Atlantans play beautifully. In many ways, Turnage plays with the orchestra, coming up with a steady stream of new and arresting sounds. This is what Runnicles emphasizes. However, if you prefer a performances that goes for emotional broke, go for Rattle on EMI.

James MacMillan's Britannia seems to me a counterpart to his masterful Scotch Bestiary (see my REVIEW on www.classicalnet) though in this case a bit cooler. MacMillan, an ardent Scot, can afford to take a less jaundiced look at the English, who are, after all, not his people. You might call this piece a fantasia on "patriotic airs." Much of it consists of phrases from Elgar's Cockaigne, as well as "God Save the Queen," reflected in fun-house mirrors, but it lacks much the satiric savagery of the Bestiary. It seems to fall under the mantle of a good-natured ribbing, as if MacMillan tries to get the English to take themselves less seriously. Interspersed with the patriotic gas one finds some beautiful quiet passages highly evocative of folk song, as if this were the real England and the rest England in heavy theatrical makeup. To me, Runnicles's reading succeeds best of all the items on the program, although I haven't heard the composer's own on Chandos.

In sum, Runnicles and the Atlanta always play beautifully, although sometimes they miss the point of the works they play. The sound is Telarc's usual stunning.

S.G.S. (February 2008)