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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

Decca 4830392
  • Simple Symphony for Strings, Op. 4 1
  • Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 1
  • Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34 2
  • Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes", Op. 33a 3
1 English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
2 London Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
3 Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Decca Virtuoso 4830392
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At last, we have this essential all-orchestral and all-Britten program on a single disc from Decca. Freed from limited-edition box sets, anyone who loves music from the last century will find this a mandatory purchase. Unlike so many of his composer contemporaries, Britten was fully capable of leading an orchestra in his own music. And since London was a hub for the classical music world during his lifetime, he had the greatest orchestras in the country at his disposal.

Sure, you could quibble over his usage of the English Chamber Orchestra, a fine group of musicians to this day that nonetheless bores me more often than not. They do just fine in this music, but the London Symphony Orchestra simply sounds better. Their lone contribution is a reference Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. There have been newer versions, flashier versions, and more idiosyncratic ones, but none have ever truly supplanted this one. It remains the reading by which all others are measured. And even in the slightly less personalized recordings from the English Chamber Orchestra, Britten's peerless musicianship continues to make those versions nearly definitive as well.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden finishes the disc with excellence. I don't believe this is the true "concert version" of these interludes, and I personally don't think it matters. Few musicians have given us such outstanding proof of their talents as all around musicians. Bernstein comes to mind, but unlike Britten he couldn't conduct Bach and Mozart. Nor did Bernstein have any reservations about leading the music of others. Britten reportedly did, and it leads one to wonder what he would have made of music he never got around to. We are very fortunate that he did get around to this project, as it remains a must-have for any serious collection of classical music.

Copyright © 2016, Brian Wigman