Britten & Holst: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 62616 2.

Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, Thomas Beecham, and Leopold Stokowski in the late Fifties and Sixties. Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan, and Bernard Haitink in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and beyond. And then, too, there was Andre Previn and in the late Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. I’m not sure many of us realized at the time that we were experiencing some kind of golden age of recorded stereo music. I know I didn’t. Looking back, these men are now among my favorite conductors, and they produced some of my favorite recordings. Thank goodness for CD’s and our ability to preserve their legacy.

The selections on this EMI “Great Recordings of the Century” disc represent some of Previn and the London Symphony’s very best work. From English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-76) come his Sinfonia da Requiem, “Four Sea Interludes,” and “Passacaglia”; and from English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) come his Perfect Fool ballet and “Egdon Heath,” all of the music recorded between 1973 and ‘74.

Of the bunch, it’s the “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera Peter Grimes that stand out for me. Beautifully recorded and colorfully rendered, these short tone pictures were long a reference standard in the LP days. Although EMI had released them on CD before (at the time coupled with Britten’s Spring Symphony), the company (now Warner Classics) remastered them in 2003 using EMI’s “Abbey Road Technology,” and they sound smoother and more revealing than ever.

For anyone who likes, say, French composer Claude Debussy’s La Mer or English pastoral music in general, Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” (“Dawn,” “Sunday Morning,” “Moonlight,” and “Storm”) are a must, a beautiful evocation of the sea, the sky, the mist, the coastline, and nature. Previn perfectly judges the pace for each section and creates vivid little symphonic pictures. The Sinfonia da Requiem may be quite a bit heavier, but it sounds so well recorded, it’s worth a listen. In contrast, the Holst ballet music from The Perfect Fool is light and festive, and Previn makes it a delight.

Then, the disc concludes with Holst’s somber tone poem “Egdon Heath,” a moody affair depicting a passage from Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native that describes the apparently desolate moor. Holst said this work was “his finest achievement.” Perhaps so, it’s certainly lyrical and poetic in Previn’s hands, but don’t be surprised if it achieves its aim and you find yourself a little depressed.

Again, I can’t say enough for the recorded sound. It is warm and detailed, polished and refined, rounded in all the right, natural ways, yet revealing, too, with a wonderful sense of depth and stereo imaging. Oddly, however, there appeared to my ears a volume imbalance between the Britten and Holst pieces that required I turn down the Holst slightly. Maybe it was just me.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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