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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

Royal Edition #24

  • Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34
  • Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes", Op. 33a
  • Passacaglia from "Peter Grimes", Op. 33b
  • Suite on English Folk Tunes "A Time There Was…", Op. 90
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Sony Classical SMK47541
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For an advocate of 20th-Century music, Bernstein recorded very little English music, and none of it has achieved classic status. Some of it has gotten lost in the shuffle, while other recordings (namely his Enigma Variations) inspire a mixture of admiration and contempt. Although he mostly ignored Britten save as a teaching tool, the composer did feature on Bernstein's final – and not especially good – concert, taped in Boston. This disc, which I did not even know existed, shows the conductor in far fresher form, although still not entirely persuasive.

The Young Person's Guide isn't nearly as dynamic as you would expect from the source, although the solo playing is very compelling. As far as I can tell based on comparison of the recording dates, this is the same performance Bernstein fans (and many children) grew up with, only sans the conductor's narrations. It certainly feels like performance that was made for that purpose, since everything is slowed down and rather stop-and-go. Perhaps for the needs of education, the engineering is also rather strange, and tends to put the melody line behind the harmonics. On the other hand, the four Sea Interludes are infinitely preferable here to the labored "Final Concert" efforts on Deutsche Grammophon that probably should never have been released. Compare the timings. Bernstein adds an inexcusable minute in Boston to the 4:19 timing here. The Boston Symphony audibly struggles, too. The New York Philharmonic plays rings around their colleagues, and the younger Bernstein proves nothing short of explosive. The sound is still a bit odd, but if you have to hear Bernstein in this music, this is the disc to get.

The Passacaglia also goes very well, despite the timing notated in the booklet being several minutes short of correct. The disc's previous owner was kind enough to write in the correct one, and I assume other copies might also have this error. Interestingly, both pieces from Peter Grimes date from the early 1970s, around the time Bernstein was exploring other English works like The Planets. The Suite "A Time There Was…" is a new work to me, but reflects the conductor's wide-ranging tastes and makes a welcome bonus. A very unique release, and one worth tracking down.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman