BRITTEN: Simple Symphony / Temporal Variations / Suite on English Folk Tunes

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Simple Symphony Temporal Variations Suite on English Folk Tunes

The works recorded on this disc cover the entire span ofBritten's published output, from the Simple Symphony of1934, itself based on material from the composer'searliest years, to the string orchestral arrangement ofLachrymae completed in 1976, the last year of Britten'slife.

Britten began composing at a very early age: hisjuvenilia, most of which he carefully preserved, consistsof an enormous number of piano pieces, songs, chambermusic and orchestral works. Unlike many composers,Britten always retained a special affection for thesechildhood efforts and was even persuaded to revive andpublish some of them in later life (and many more haveappeared posthumously). When, late in 1933, he decidedto try his hand at writing a money-spinner for thelucrative schools market, he turned to this early body ofwork to fashion what became the Simple Symphony,Op. 4, for string orchestra (or string quartet). In doing sohe took the opportunity to rework the materialsomewhat, making it 'more fit for general consumption',as he put it. In fact comparison of the original pieceswith their transformation in the Simple Symphonyclearly demonstrates Britten's astonishing progressionfrom a musically gifted child to a consummate master ofhis craft at the age of just 21. The work's fourmovements are memorably tuneful, technically polishedand superbly conceived for the medium, the PlayfulPizzicato being an especially delightful invention.

One of the more striking of the numerous works tohave been published since Britten's death in 1976 is theTemporal Variations for oboe and piano, composed in1936 and first performed at the Wigmore Hall inDecember of that year by the oboist Natalie Caine, afriend of Britten's from his Royal College of Musicdays. Although Britten declared himself pleased with theperformance and the favourable audience response, thegenerally negative reviews of several critics may haveplayed a part in his decision to withdraw the work,which was never heard again during his lifetime. Beforecomposing the piece Britten had announced that he wasworking on a 'large and elaborate suite for oboe andstrings'. Although this did not materialise, in the early1990s the oboist Nicholas Daniel (the soloist on thepresent recording) suggested to the composer ColinMatthews that an arrangement of the Variations for oboeand strings could well take the place of the aborted suite.

Thus the premi?¿re of the orchestrated version was givenat the Aldeburgh Festival in June 1994 with Daniel assoloist and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted bySteuart Bedford. Formally the work is a series of shortcharacter-sketches, by turns light-hearted andcontemplative, bound together by use of the plangentsemi-tone motif with which the oboe opens the work andwith which it concludes. In this respect the TemporalVariations can be seen as something of a trial run for themore fully accomplished achievement of the Variationson a theme of Frank Bridge, composed some six monthslater.

A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41, was written inDecember 1947 for the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans,who had recently taken part in the first productions ofThe Rape of Lucretia, in which she sang the r??le ofLucretia, Albert Herring, in which she took the part ofNancy (appropriately enough), and who would appearagain as Polly Peachum in Britten's version of TheBeggar's Opera a year later. The work is one of the mostgenial and uncomplicated of Britten's song-cycles,though not without some more agitated undercurrents,particularly in the two central songs, settings of RobertGreene's Sephestia's Lullaby and Thomas Randolph's ACharm. Colin Matthews' orchestral version, made to acommission from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestrain 1990, is scored for a small orchestra of doublewoodwind, two horns, harp and strings. In a few placesthe original voice-and-piano version has been altered orexpanded, in Matthews' words, 'to give it the extradimension needed for an orchestral song-cycle' and thefirst three songs and the last two have been neatlylinked, thus effectively weaving the work into an almostcontinuous whole.

Britten's original version of Lachrymae for violaand piano was written in May 1950 as brief respite fromlabours on Billy Budd. Originally written for anddedicated to the violist William Primrose, Brittenrevised the work in 1970 for a performance atAldeburgh with Cecil Aronowitz and made thisarrangement for viola and string orchestra for the sameplayer in February 1976. Subtitled Reflections on a songof John Dowland, the work does not so much grow outof the Dowland song 'If my complaints could passionsmove' on which it is based, as into it; thus the workproceeds by way of a sequence of contrasted variations(the sixth, marked Appassionato, quotes a secondDowland song, 'Flow my tears') towards the magicalconclusion when the Dowland original, together with itsown harmonization, appears to emerge from out of amist, a moment made particularly telling in theorchestral version, when we seem to be hearing it acrossthe distance of time, as if played by a consort of viols.

Britten was to turn to Dowland once more in 1963 forhis Nocturnal, Op. 70, written for the guitarist JulianBream.

In December 1966, Britten composed a short 'folkdance for wind and drums' entitled Hankin Booby forthe opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London inMarch 1967. He had often expressed his intention to finda larger context for this solitary miniature and sevenyears later, incorporated it into the Suite on English FolkTunes, Op. 90, his last purely orchestral work, begun inOctober 1974 whilst on a visit to Wolfsgarten inGermany and completed at Horham, Suffolk, thefollowing month. Dedicated to the memory of PercyGrainger, himself an avid folk-song arranger, the workwas composed for the forces of the English ChamberOrchestra (at that time the Aldeburgh Festival's 'houseband') and was first performed by them on 13th June1975, with Steuart Bedford conducting. The work'ssubtitle 'A time there was...' refers to the Thomas Hardypoem 'Before life and after' which Britten had set as theconcluding song in his 1952 cycle Winter Words, a songwhich yearns for a return to a time 'before the birth ofconsciousness, when all went well'. Each of the Suite'sfive movements is based around a pair of tunes foundeither in Playford's The Dancing Master, a collection offolk melodies published during the mid-seventeenthcentury, or collected orally from authentic rural sources.

Britten's earthy treatment of his folk-song material is atthe furthest remove from the sentimentality oftenassociated with the English pastoral tradition: the firstmovement, Cakes and Ale, is a vigorous scherzo marked'Fast and rough' with prominent r??les for timpani andpercussion, contrasted with a more warmly harmonizedmiddle section. The Bitter Withy, derived from a Sussexsong noted down by Vaughan Williams, is dominated bythe solo harp (given the very Graingeresque marking'ringingly'), which is then exchanged for a more sombretexture with quiet unison strings and the dark sonority oftwo low horns and tubular bell. Hankin Booby is asomewhat caustic alla-Coranto that gains its pungent,quasi-medieval sound from its acid two-partcontrapuntal writing and incisive scoring for woodwindand muted trumpets over a rhythmic tattoo played on atamburo. Hunt the Squirrel engages the two violinsections in a lively Scottish-sounding reel, much of itsrustic brilliance achieved by the effective use of openstrings. The final movement is the only one to quote afolk song in toto: after an introduction based on snatchesof a dance tune, Epping Forest, Britten faithfullyreproduces the long melody Lord Melbourne astranscribed by Grainger himself, played 'freely' on thecor anglais over a harmonically static yet rhythmic
Item number 8557205
Barcode 747313220526
Release date 11/01/2004
Category Wind
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Wyn-Rogers, Catherine
Daniel, Nicholas
Dukes, Philip
Wyn-Rogers, Catherine
Daniel, Nicholas
Dukes, Philip
Composers Britten, Benjamin
Britten, Benjamin
Conductors Bedford, Steuart
Bedford, Steuart
Orchestras Sinfonia, Northern
Sinfonia, Northern
Disc: 1
Suite on English Folk Tunes, Op. 90, "A time there
1 Boisterous Bourree
2 Playful Pizzacato
3 Sentimental Sarabande
4 Frolicsome Finale
5 Theme
6 Oration
7 March
8 Exercises
9 Commination
10 Chorale
11 Waltz
12 Polka
13 Resolution
14 A Cradle Song
15 The Highland Balou
16 Sephestia's Lullably
17 A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41 (arr. C. Matthews)
18 The Nurse's Song
19 Theme
20 Variation 1: Allegretto, andante molto
21 Variation 2: Animato
22 Variation 3: Tranquillo
23 Variation 4: Allegro con moto
24 Variation 5: Largamente
25 Variation 6: Appasionato
26 Variation 7: Alla valse moderato
27 Variation 8: Allegro marcia
28 Variation 9: Lento
29 Variation 10: L'istesso tempo
30 Cakes and Ale
31 The Bitter Withy
32 Hankin Booby
33 Hunt the Squirrel
34 Lord Melbourne
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