Britten's Orchestra (CD review)

Benjamin Britten:  The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra; Sinfonia da requiem; Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia.  Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony.  Reference Recordings RR-120.

Some years ago when Reference Recordings came out with their disc of Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, I wondered why the company would want to go head-to-head with Andre Previn's well-received EMI recording of several decades before.  Now, in 2009, I wondered the same thing as RR released an album of Benjamin Britten's music, two of the items--the Sinfonia da requiem and the Sea Interludes--having again already been notably recorded by Andre Previn and the third item recorded by the composer himself.  I suppose I should not have been concerned.  In terms of program content, interpretations, and sonics, the Reference Recordings disc is different enough to assuage any doubts about their comparative worth.

On this album, RR offer three of Britten's most-popular orchestral works, starting with what is possibly his most well-known music, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.  Britten wrote what was initially called The Instruments of the Orchestra at the request of the Ministry of Education for a school children's film premiered in 1946, and he based his music on a hornpipe theme from 1695 by Henry Purcell.  The idea was to highlight and showcase each family of instruments in a symphony orchestra in order to acquaint youngsters with them.  The Purcell variations may seem overly simple to some listeners and perhaps even clumsily constructed, but they hit a chord with the public and continue to make for delightful listening.  The music is easily accessible, filled with memorable plenty of warmth and played by Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony with great affection and enthusiasm.  Not only does the music showcase the instruments of the orchestra, it showcases the talents of the K.C. players.

However, I wouldn't say Stern's performance eclipses that of the composer himself in his 1963 Decca recording, which is still the definitive version, making Stern seem almost lax by comparison.  While Britten's rendering crackles with energy, Stern is merely competent.  Moreover, the old Decca continues to sound awfully good, too, albeit in a glossier, more "hi-fi" sort of way rather than in the purely lifelike way of the Reference Recordings disc.

Next up, we get the Sinfonia da requiem, Britten's first purely orchestral work without a soloist and written at the request of the Japanese government in 1940 to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese dynasty.  When the Japanese heard it, though, they felt offended by Britten's pacifist Christian references in the piece and rejected it.  That was for the best, of course, since within a year Japan was at war with England.  John Barbirolli premiered the work with the New York Philharmonic in 1941, and it's been going strong ever since.  Here, Stern plays the first movement Lacrymosa rather briskly, slightly lessening its cries of grief.  Fortunately, the second movement Dies irae and third movement Requiem aeternam more than make up for it with their intensity and repose, respectively.

Then there are the Four Sea Interludes and the Passacaglia from Britten's 1944 opera Peter Grimes.  Taken as a group, these brief tone poems make a familiar suite of atmospheric music similar to Debussy's La Mer.  The unusual element here is that in this order of things, we find the Passacaglia in the fourth position, after "Dawn," "Sunday Morning," and "Moonlight" and before "Storm," which ends the piece.  More commonly, conductors place the Passacaglia (a slow, dignified dance of Spanish origin) last, where it allows the suite to finish on a tranquil note.  Concluding with the "Storm" tends to help the whole thing wrap up with a bang, but it doesn't quite feel right, sort of like hearing Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony closing with the tumultuous storm section.  In any case, with a CD player listeners can rearrange the movements in any sequence they want.

As far as comparisons to the aforementioned Previn EMI recordings are concerned, maybe it's because I've lived with them for so long, it's hard to readily accept other versions.  I continue to think Previn is more incisive than Stern in the Sinfonia and more evocative in the Sea Interludes.  Where Stern scores is in the sheer vigor and dynamism of his brawnier performances.

And where the RR recording scores is in the realism of its sound.  Not that Previn's EMI recordings in particular are any slouches (they are, indeed, excellent by any standard), but the sonics on the RR disc are just that much better:  Big, warm, and smooth, with no trace of edginess, glassiness, or glare.  As usual from this source, there is also a fine depth of field, more than we find in the EMIs, plus remarkable impact, wide dynamics, deep deep bass, and a quick, crisp transient response.  In addition, we get a fairly lucid midrange, not quite as thickly reverberant as with some Reference Recordings, with yet a natural hall bloom that reminds one of being in the audience for a live concert performance.  The HDCD recording under the guidance of engineer Keith Johnson lives up to the name of the company that makes it:  It truly is an audiophile reference recording.

Incidentally, for those who appreciate such things, the cover art is quite fetching and Richard Freed's booklet notes are illuminating.  Every little bit works to complement the whole.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa