BRITTEN: Occasional Overture. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10.
Prelude and Fugue for 18-part String Orchestra, Op. 29. The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
English Chamber Orch.(Variations/Prelude); London Symphony Orch/Steuart Bedford,cond.
NAXOS 8.557200 (B) (DDD) TT: 59:50
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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 in F minor. Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor. Flos Campi.
Paul Silverthorne, viola; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orch/Paul Daniel, cond.
NAXOS 8.557276 (B) (DDD) TT: 62:34
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CASADESUS: Viola Concerto in B minor in the style of Handel. WALTON: Viola Concerto. BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy, Op. 16.
William Primrose, violist; RCA Victor Orch/Frieder Weissmann, cond.(Casadesus); Philharmonia Orch/William Walton, cond. (Walton); Boston Symphony Orch/Serge Koussevitzky, cond. (Berlioz).
NAXOS 8.110316 (B) (ADD) TT: 79:43
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Everything here is good value (or better) for the money, although only the Primrose collection of Viola Concertos – bogus Handel but very much in the style, charmingly confected by Henri Casadesus – has no serious challenges interpretively, except by himself perhaps in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. He recorded each of these works at least twice – four times if one counts a 1939 broadcast performance of Harold with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony issued by Music & Arts. Scottish-born Primrose (1904-82) emigrated stateside in 1937 as co-principal violist in the broadcast orchestra that Artur Rodzinski assembled and prepared for Toscanini, but became a solo artist in 1941 at the same time he continued to be violist in a string quartet of NBCSO colleagues (Oscar Shumsky initially, Joseph Gingold, Primrose and Harvey Shapiro). Not just a solo artist, however, but pre-eminently so when his British role-model, Lionel Tertis, retired, followed by Frederick Riddle, who was soloist in the first recording of Walton’s concerto, conducted in 1937 by the composer. While that earlier version was 19 seconds slower than his 1946 remake with Primrose and the Philharmonia Orchestra (22:33 vs. 22:51), Tully Potter in his program note suggests that the near-decade took some ginger out of Walton, but “still [this 1946] performance has many marvelous moments, not least from the Philharmonia wind soloists.” I don’t know the Riddle version, nor one made with Sir Malcolm Sargent in between, but this does true justice – here I agree with Potter – to “the earliest and best of the composer’s three concertos,” with its diabolically tricky scherzo (Vivo, con molto preciso) and a finale that lasts half the length of the piece and ends with eloquent reworkings of earlier themes. Mark Obert-Thorn’s remastering is a thoroughly honest likeness of the mono LP on HMV. The Casadesus/Handel had been recorded in England earlier, but this 1946 remake with an “RCA Victor Orchestra” under Frieder Weissmann is glitteringly played as well as jolly, with a remarkably eloquent slow movement. The pièce de résistance, though, is a November 1944 Harold with Koussevitzky and the still-great Boston Orchestra that Charles Munch subsequently coarsened (listen to Primrose’s 1958 version with him, over and done in 38 minutes, still available in a 10-disc RCA box of Munch’s Boston Berlioz recordings). Until then, there’d been general concensus among conductors about the work’s duration: 40:32 in Toscanini’s 1939 performance (41:46 in a 1953 broadcast with Carlton Cooley as soloist); 42:32 in a recording Primrose made with Sir Thomas Beecham in 1951, more relaxed than others (to the music’s disadvantage), and 41:47 with Koussevitzky, superbly recorded for the time and remastered magically from lacquer discs used in all LP reissues of DM-989, de-clicked without disturbing the intensity of the performance. By 1944 Primrose had adopted a darker tone and faster vibrato than he favored as a young man, and occasional sustained tones are just under the pitch. But this is in the playing, not in the transfer, and in no way spoils a performance that remains, for me, the supreme Harold on discs of any vintage, right up to the present LSO Live conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

The Fourth Symphony of Vaughan Williams was his harshest music to that time, equalled only by the opening movements of No. 6, to the consternation of many listeners both lay and professional. He worked on it for three years (1931-34), thereby suggesting to some that it was a premonition of World War Two, whereas England was in the grip of the Great (worldwide) Depression. The Fourth followed VW’s sublimely beautiful ballet Job (likewise a three-year project, 1927-30), which nonetheless contained some disconcerting music, albeit none as thematically trenchant or insistently discordant. Sir Adrian Boult led its premiere with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in April 1934, but VW himself conducted the first recording a year later using the same orchestra. Boult was thereafter its champion on discs, but conductors very different in orientation and style have made recordings over the years, among them André Previn, Stokowski, Bernard Haitink, Leonard Slatkin, Paavo Berglund and Roger Norrington, as well as numerous Brits, Vernon Handley in particular. Paul Daniels joins the latter group on Naxos in a performance both requisitely strident if a tad too calm where VW takes off the gloves and rests between rounds, so to speak. The Bournemouth Orchestra could have used a few more strings but those on hand respond with panache as well as purpose, and are just right for the early Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 of 1906 (there never was a second or third) and the quasi-concerto of 1924, Flos Campi, for solo violist – originally introduced by Lionel Tertis, see above – with small orchestra and a small chorus that sings excerpts from “The Song of Songs.” From a quiet, bi-tonal opening it sustains a pastoral quality that might be called Ralph Vaughan Ravel (with whom VW studied before WW-1). Paul Silverthorne is soloist in a hallowed tradition, at one with Daniels, the orchestra and chorus. Their recording in “The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK” maintains a reputation enjoyed by producer Andrew Walton and engineer Mike Clements, and features 24bit resolution from production to editing. Good note, too, by Keith Anderson; welcome back.

The Britten, recorded in 1991-92, was originally released by Collins Classics and is good value indeed for the dollar. Steuart Bedford was a disciple of the composer, who entrusted him with the first performance of his final opera, Death in Venice. From 1974 until 1998 he was also an Artistic Director of Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival (in later years shared with Oliver Knussen), and a conductor worldwide of the composer’s operas. The treasure here, as it has been since Herbert von Karajan’s astonishing EMI recording half a century ago with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge – Britten’s cherished teacher – 11 of them for string orchestra following an Introduction and the Theme, composed at age 24 but already with a mastery that makes them as vivid today as they were in 1937. Boyd Neel requested the work for his chamber orchestra and gave the first performance, as he did the Prelude and Fugue for 18-Part String Orchestra, written in 1943 to celebrate the orchestra’s 10th anniversary. The latter is a serious piece of astonishing sonority and periodic severity at a time when Peter Grimes was germinating. The Occasional Overture of 1946 for the inauguration of the BBC’s Third Programme is comparatively trivial, a bagatelle not published until the composer had been dead eight years. Boult, no admirer of Britten, conducted (presumably without Bedford’s vibrancy). These works so far feature the English Chamber Orchestra recorded in All Saints Church, East Finchley, but the best-known is Britten’s doubly-named Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra/Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell, likewise composed in 1946, recorded by Bedford with the London Symphony in the then-scandalous Barbican Centre (still acoustically controversial despite efforts to remedy tonal dryness verging on the drab). Bedford and his players do well, but neither as spiritedly nor as vibrantly recorded as the composer’s own LSO version of 1964 in Kingsway Hall, produced by Eric Smith and recorded by Gordon Parry. Decca re-released it as part of its ADRM series with the Bridge Variations, produced by John Culshaw with Parry’s engineering expertise, and the Simple Symphony, composed between December 1933 and February 1934, based on eight adolescent works written from 1923 to 1926 – in other words, four years before the Bridge Variations. Movement titles may be “cute” but the music retains a callow charm all these years later; and Britten did know how to conduct his music to the best advantage, this last in 1968 with Kenneth Wilkinson at the control panel. Unless you must have the Prelude and Fugue (which Britten conducts on a different disc), Naxos/Collins costs less than half of Decca’s compilation ($7.99 vs. $15.99 at Arkiv on line). But it was Britten who was the master of his own music, however much one admires Bedford for his expertise as well as devotion.

R.D. (August 2005)