Britannia (SACD review)

Music of Elgar, Davies, Turnage, MacMillan, and Britten. Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Telarc SACD-60677.

Besides being the Principal Guest Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles is the Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Guest Conductor of the San Francisco Opera among other things, so he is, indeed, a busy man. His album here of twentieth-century British music is along the lines I would have expected, a little daring, a little volatile, and a little sedate, too.

The sedate part starts and ends the program, Sir Edward Elgar’s First and Fourth Pomp and Circumstance Marches from 1901-1907 (with the Fourth coming first). There’s nothing sedate about the way Runnicles plays them, though. He goes at them with gusto. Probably too much gusto for my taste, as his tempos suggest something other than marches and tend to diminish the grandeur and ceremony of the works in favor of pure excitement.

Following the first Elgar piece is Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise from 1984, and it is probably the best thing Runnicles does on the disc. Davies himself described the music as “a picture postcard,” and that’s how the conductor approaches it, as a tone painting. It’s really fun, lively, and picturesque.

The next couple of things, frankly, I disliked. But that’s just me, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with Runnicles’s readings of the music. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes and James MacMillan’s Britannia are simply too noisy for me. They seem typical of mid-to-late twentieth-century music that dispenses with anything approaching traditional melodies to create sonic impressions that jar the senses rather than soothe them. I’m old fashioned, I admit; I don’t want my senses jarred. Turnage’s work has elements of jazz infused throughout that are sort of fun, but, overall, I don’t think I’d want to revisit it. MacMillan’s Britannia is a bit more conventional, playing out a little like Charles Ives in that the composer sneaks in bits and pieces of other works--Arne and Elgar among them--to create a broad, modern canvas of British orchestral music.

Then, just before the final Elgar march, Runnicles gives us Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem from 1939. Britten wrote it on a commission from the Japanese government just before World War II, but the Japanese were dissatisfied with the Catholic references in it and never performed it. Britten was happy to take the money and run. Anyway, Runnicles offers it up in a most dramatic fashion, with all the power, intimacy, and proper repose it requires.

The Telarc engineers do a fine job on their end as well, capturing a good stereo spread, good imagery, good depth, and good, taut bass. However, in the hybrid SACD’s regular two-channel mode, playable on any standard CD or DVD player, there is a touch of veiling, a kind of mist. In the disc’s two-channel SACD mode played back on an SACD player, the sound clears up better and appears a tad more dynamic. So if you have an SACD player, more power to you.


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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