Scottish Ensemble (Gould) – ‘Britten: Les Illuminations, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, Strings’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

It takes a lot of nerve for some brash bunch to come along and try to make a recording of a piece that was already masterfully recorded under the composer’s own direction. And it would take a lot of talent, a lot of inspiration, and a distinctive angle to stake out new territory in an oft-recorded work. But I’m impressed to report that the Scottish Ensemble under Clio Gould’s direction have done just that in Benjamin Britten’s ‘Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge’. And the rest of this new Linn hybrid CD/SACD is just as good, if not better.

The ‘Variations’ were Britten’s first major work, seemingly springing out of nowhere in 1938, announcing to the world the arrival of a new genius. Britten starts with a fairly unassuming theme extracted from a chamber work by his teacher Frank Bridge, but in the following half hour, he proceeds to pretty much summarize the history of Western art music and cap it with the debut of his own distinctive style. Not bad for a twenty-three-year old! The work has it all: A skittish march, a sly bourйe, a decadent waltz, a frenetic moto perpetuo, even a Mahleresque funeral march. In the last few variations, it edges into more visionary realms, with the funeral march leading to a crepuscular chant, followed by a wide-ranging fugue and finale. Essential listening.

Although the work doesn’t show up all that frequently in concert (at least not in the States), it has had a number of fine recordings over the years, led by the composer’s own recording made for Decca in 1967 with the English Chamber Orchestra. Britten tears into the precocious work with obvious relish, and the close-up Decca recording emphasizes the amazing palette of colors that he gets from the English Chamber Orchestra. Britten intentionally avoided the use of massed, lush strings throughout the piece so that the few moments where all the instruments do play have that much more impact. The ECO players relish the composer’s adventurous textures which could easily lead under prepared ensembles onto the rocks, and Britten’s sure-handed direction keeps the sense of adventure to the fore, without ever underplaying the constantly changing moods of the piece. The biggest drawback in Britten’s own recording is that the closeness of the otherwise handsome Kingsway Hall recording robs the closing pages of their mysterious power, leaving the ending less emotionally potent than it should be. But it is essential to hear the sheer attitude of Britten’s own manner, which downplays the symphonic and highlights the characterization of his invention. It remains in the catalogue, coupled with the ‘Simple Symphony’ and the ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ (performed without narration).

Indeed, Britten’s punchy recording may have been in direct response to the monophonic recording from the mid-1950’s by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI. Karajan weaves his typical spell, smoothing out much of the eccentricity of the piece, rounding off corners, and giving it a symphonic sweep. The measure of the masterpiece is that it can be handled this way and still come out looking like a work of genius, and that certainly happens in Karajan’s hands. In some ways, it is a more straight-faced affair, but it effectively puts a continental slant on a work that to date has remained largely the province of British conductors. This recording has been reissued, but keep in mind that it is in monophonic sound, albeit very well-balanced, atmospheric mono. It is coupled with a similarly intriguing account of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis’.

A very special—and in my eyes, essential—recording of the ‘Variations’ was made in the late 1980’s by Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony for Teldec. Davis combined something of Karajan’s dark sweep with Britten’s vivid fire, resulting in a performance for the ages. Davis makes more of the work’s dark side than anyone else, keeping his eye on the undercurrents which run beneath even the brash numbers. These undercurrents grow throughout to eventually power the final transfiguration to wrenching emotional heights. Teldec’s somewhat distant recording worked to Davis’ advantage, as he plays up the more mysterious, elusive aspects of the work, most beguilingly of all in a half-lit, otherworldly rendition of the ‘Chant’ section, and again in the string chords played in harmonics near the end of the finale. This recording is now available in a reissue from Warner, along with fine renditions of the ‘Four Sea Interludes’ and ‘Passacaglia’ from Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes”, as well as the ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’, without narration. While we’re on that subject, one minor quibble: If that latter piece is done without narration, it should technically be described as ‘Variations on a Theme of Purcell’. That is the official title for the orchestral version, and the rather condescending other title refers to the version including narration. Unfortunately, Britten set a precedent by letting Decca market the orchestral version under the more familiar title, so I suppose we’re stuck with it forever.

As we’ll see below, Clio Gould and the Scottish Ensemble take an intimate, lean approach to the ‘Variations’. But it can’t be said that they are the first to venture into this territory. Thomas Fьri and the Camerata Bern made a recording of the work in 1990 for Denon that covered such ground. Or more accurately, sprinted across that ground at maximum possible speed, regardless of the musical consequences. Fьri’s recording is strictly for fans of virtuoso string ensemble playing. In those terms, it is brilliant and impressive. In musical terms, Fьri’s fury is a disaster, running rough-shod over Britten’s invention, breathlessly hurling from one section to the next, never for a moment suggesting that the music might actually mean something or have some depth. Thus, the appearance of Gould’s account is doubly important as it proves that a more intimate ensemble can, in fact, plumb the depths of this music, just as much as it can dazzle with the surface.

Clio Gould and the Scottish Ensemble follow in the mold of Britten himself, delighting in the work’s endlessly inventive colors and textures, letting the serious undercurrents gradually well up to take control of the work by the end, but they do so with a reduced number of strings, allowing the fast tempos to be pushed to the brink without running into ensemble or intonation problems (which show in the frayed edges toward the end of William Boughton’s otherwise admirable Nimbus recording with the English String Orchestra). The reduced number of strings does mean that some weight and depth of sound is lost compared to Britten’s sizable English Chamber Orchestra or Davis’ even larger string complement from the BBC Symphony, but the Scots make up for it in vivid commitment. Indeed, Gould and her players must sit on the edge of their seats as they play, for the energy captured here is enormous, and the excitement is almost palpable.

Compared against the other version of the ‘Variations’ available on SACD – Roman Kofman and the Kiev Chamber Orchestra on MDG – this one will stand as a clear winner for most, although Kofman makes no attempt at producing the same sort of performance. Rather, Kofman pushes the work in the opposite direction, using a large body of strings and concentrating on unity instead of contrast. In general, Kofman’s slow tempos are faster, and his fast speeds aren’t as fleet as Gould (not to mention Britten himself). Kofman’s approach makes for a satisfyingly symphonic feel that is certainly worthwhile, with string playing of true distinction, caught in a typically gorgeous recording by MDG. Indeed, Kofman falls somewhere in the tradition of Karajan’s performance, only (thankfully!) without as much lush velvet. But adrenaline junkies will find it hard to choose Kofman over the very direct passion of Clio Gould’s recording, likewise given an outstanding (though much closer) recording by Linn Records. That moves Gould’s disc into place as the top recommendation in high-resolution format, and as a fine alternative to the essential recordings by Britten and Davis.

But the disc becomes even more impressive when the other works are considered. Tenor Toby Spence and Royal Philharmonic principal horn Martin Owen join Gould and the Scottish Ensemble for a rendition of the ‘Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings’ that is equally triumphant. Again, there is an essential recording led by Britten himself with the English Chamber Orchestra featuring his life companion Peter Pears as the soloist, which is of inestimable value, considering that Pears was the voice Britten had in mind when composing the work. Not everyone is a fan of the unique timbre of Pears’ voice (especially in his later years), but there can be no doubt that he had as much insight as any performer could want on the piece. His wisdom and assurance bring these magical night-pieces to life, as do the marvelous contributions of hornist Barry Tuckwell. Only the chunkiness of a few of Pears’ roulades betray the decreasing agility of an aging voice. For a smoother example of Pears’ voice, there is the early recording (1944) he made with Britten conducting the Boyd Neel Orchestra on Decca, but the later recording features greater certainly from both the singer and the composer as conductor. The principal lure of the early recording is in hearing the horn part played by the master for whom it was written, Denis Brain, who later died in an auto accident at far too young an age, but frankly, Tuckwell outplays him in the later recording, as do a few others in more recent recordings. Pears and Brain can also be heard to good effect in a recording from the 1950’s led by Sir Eugene Goossens, although this Decca record doesn’t get reissued often, and can be difficult to track down.

Naxos has recently resurrected the fine Britten series led by the composer’s associate Steuart Bedford, which originally appeared on Collins in the early 1990’s. Philip Langridge joined Bedford to make a stately, almost severe version of the ‘Serenade’. Only in the “Dirge” are speeds pressed forward, somewhat robbing the song of impact. The “Hymn” movement is notable also for being extremely deft and witty. Elsewhere, the performance is poised and unhurried, culminating in a performance of the “Sonnet” which masterfully captures the elusive sadder, wiser feel of the end of the work. The recorded sound is good albeit plain.

Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is potentially an ideal singer for Britten’s ‘Serenade’, with a silvery, quintessentially English voice. Unfortunately, the Scottish National Orchestra in his 1988 Chandos recording is driven almost relentlessly by Bryden Thomson. Thomson could be a fine conductor in certain repertory, but expansive patience was never up his alley; thus he seems ill at ease with the need to gradually unfold Britten’s collection of dreamlike states, and constantly presses forward. The Chandos recorded sound is pleasingly spacious, although it does have a bit too much added reverberation.

A distinctive version of the ‘Serenade’ was recorded in 1989 on Nimbus by American tenor Jerry Hadley, with William Boughton conducting the English String Orchestra, and master hornist Anthony Halstead taking the concertante horn part. Many listeners will quickly decide that they either love or hate Hadley in this work. He brings a far more operatic approach to the work than most, as well as boundless waves of warmth and enthusiasm. If most English singers tenors tend toward a silvery tone, Hadley sings with unabashedly golden warmth. He treats each song as a scene, playing the range of dynamics from soft to stentorian, unashamedly committing himself to the implied emotions of the music. Fans of the stereotypically British stiff-upper-lip school of reserved commitment might find Hadley the equivalent of a humid warm front on a hot summer’s night, but I find his passion irresistible. He comes perilously close to overshooting the mystery of the final song (to Keats’ sonnet “To Sleep”), but reins himself in by the close of it to capture the magical stillness. Halstead’s horn work matches or even surpasses Hadley in braggadocio, as he fearlessly pushes himself right to the edge of his technique, even more so than Tuckwell, who pioneered the approach. Halstead is unsurpassed in his manner of sharply lowering the pitch of the horn in the “Elegy” by inserting his hand in the instrument’s bell (as instructed in the score), reducing the note to a harsh, strangled howl in a way that sends chills up and down my spine every time I hear it. No one has yet surpassed Halstead at making the horn an instrument of terror!

One version that I would recommend passing up is the EMI recording with Ian Bostridge singing, Marie-Luise Neunecker on the horn and the Bamberg Symphony conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. Bostridge is a controversial taste in some quarters, but I like his daring style, and he doesn’t disappoint here. He can be a touch overly demonstrative at times, but he adds many nice touches along the way. The problem here is the wholly inadequate horn playing of Neunecker, who has far too unsteady and querulous a tone to compete with the likes of Halstead or Tuckwell. Worse than her narrow tone in the “Prologue” is that her intonation is so far off, she misses the high note by a half step. Unbelievable that such a gaffe made it on to such a high-profile release. And not only does Neunecker not make much impact in the opening solo, when she repeats it offstage at the end, it is played even faster, losing all sense of rumination over the loss of innocence expressed by the succession of songs. Metzmacher’s handling of the orchestra is typically dedicated; however, it is also typically lacking in breathing room, which is a serious problem in the more ruminative parts of the ‘Serenade’. Let’s hope instead that Bostridge tackles this important piece again in the future with more powerful and expressive partners.

On the Linn disc, tenor Toby Spence scales his performance intimately, matching the size of the Scottish Ensemble, and in turn the recording is close-up and personal. Horn virtuoso Martin Owen balances himself against the rest of the group in the ensemble numbers, but he makes the most of the “Prologue”, playing with incredible dynamic range and pushing himself as close to the edge as Anthony Halstead did in the Nimbus recording. The following “Pastoral” flows more than usual, but Spence’s silvery lyricism sells it. The “Nocturne” is broadly paced, allowing evocative space for both voice and horn. Moving into the “Elegy”, Owen rivals Halstead for power and sharp character, and Spence is simply mesmerizing. The slow pace for the movement intensifies it immensely, and Owen’s control over his final few notes is masterful. The subsequent “Dirge” finds Spence growing increasingly desperate as Gould’s strings weave an especially sinister fugue, capped at its height by a demonic contribution from Owen’s horn. Tension is released in the following “Hymn”, where Spence’s voice falls as lightly as moonbeams, while Owen’s horn scampers about. The culminating “Sonnet” is broad and magical, and the offstage horn “Epilogue”, poignant. A more convincing case for an intimately-scaled performance of the ‘Serenade is difficult to imagine.

Further bolstering the value of this release is a superlative performance of Britten’s early song cycle ‘Les Illuminations’, setting poetry of the wild-eyed young genius Arthur Rimbaud. The wild youth of the poet struck a responsive chord in the young Britten, leading to a work full of extravagant invention that is still quintessentially Brittenesque (note the resemblance between the opening fanfares of ‘Les Illuminations and the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge’). In fact, it is all of the radiant youthfulness of the piece that works against the late recording made by Pears and Britten. Although Britten as conductor captures much of the work’s fantasy, his energy level is arguably low, and Pears was simply no longer at an age where he could convincingly be “in the moment” while performing such a precocious song cycle. Instead, Pears comes off as an aging man fondly revisiting the follies of more youthful days, drawing a slight veil of inappropriate nostalgia and regret over the work. Toby Spence’s inspiration is conversely much more energetic and rooted in the present. Here the youthful voice eagerly wraps itself around Britten’s adventurous vocal line, and the zest of the Scottish Ensemble’s contribution assures that this performance jumps past the composer’s own to become top recommendation for tenor versions of the cycle. Roman Kofman’s MDG disc (discussed above in the ‘Variations’ section of the review) also includes ‘Les Illuminations’, but it is performed there with soprano soloist. Readers who prefer the soprano version and don’t mind a more symphonically swept ‘Variations’ may find themselves very pleased with that release, though I would venture that few will want to miss this Linn disc, with its three outstanding performances.

Linn Records again brings us a demonstration-class multichannel recording on this hybrid release. The surround channels are used in the 5.1 multichannel SACD program to bring the listener inside the same space occupied by the performers, yet there is no excessive or overemphatic use of the surrounds which might distract from the music at hand. The multichannel program simply increases the sense of intimacy in what is already a very intimate set of performances, proving how potent it is when a recording matches the style of performance. For contrast, one could look at the stately performance of the Britten ‘Serenade’ by Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford, given an inappropriately reverberant recording by Collins. There, the performance and the recording seem at odds. Such an atmospheric, reverberant recording works fine, however, when it is paired on Nimbus with the much more freely expressive performance of Jerry Hadley and William Boughton. Here on Linn we get an intimate scaling but with a strong sense of space around the performers, matching their expressive, evocative style. Although some intimacy is lost in moving to the stereo-only SACD layer, the resolution of the DSD recording assures that a strong sense of instrumental color comes through, allowing the listener to relish high string harmonics without fear of them sounding glassy and screechy. The regular CD layer of the recording is again a shade less effective than the high-resolution programs, but it won’t just stand comparison with any other CD recording on the market, it will blow them away.

The Britten recordings of most of these pieces remain essential, and there are some outstanding other versions which must be heard (Davis in the ‘Variations’, Hadley in the ‘Serenade’). But the three fine performances contained on this release make it essential. Long-time lovers of these works will find themselves falling in love all over again. And if you haven’t yet plunged into Britten’s masterpieces, this disc is why you should do it now.