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ClassicsOnline Home » BRITTEN: Simple Symphony / Temporal Variations / Suite on English Folk Tunes
The works on this recording cover the entire span of Britten’s published output – from the Simple Symphony of 1934, to the string orchestral arrangement of Lachrymae completed in the last year of his life. Britten always retained a special affection for his childhood efforts and in the Simple Symphony reworked his earliest compositions making them ‘more fit for general consumption’. In contrast there is a special poignancy about the works of his final three years, composed after Britten’s unsuccessful heart operation. In its earthy treatment of the folk-song material, the Suite on English Folk Tunes, his last purely orchestral work, is at the furthest remove from the sentimentality often associated with the English pastoral tradition.
By John J. Puccio
Penguin Guide Key Recording
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Simple Symphony • Temporal Variations • Suite on English Folk Tunes
The works recorded on this disc cover the entire span of Britten’s published output, from the Simple Symphony of 1934, itself based on material from the composer’s earliest years, to the string orchestral arrangement of Lachrymae completed in 1976, the last year of Britten’s life.
Britten began composing at a very early age: his juvenilia, most of which he carefully preserved, consists of an enormous number of piano pieces, songs, chamber music and orchestral works. Unlike many composers, Britten always retained a special affection for these childhood efforts and was even persuaded to revive and publish some of them in later life (and many more have appeared posthumously). When, late in 1933, he decided to try his hand at writing a money-spinner for the lucrative schools market, he turned to this early body of work to fashion what became the Simple Symphony, Op. 4, for string orchestra (or string quartet). In doing so he took the opportunity to rework the material somewhat, making it ‘more fit for general consumption’, as he put it. In fact comparison of the original pieces with their transformation in the Simple Symphony clearly demonstrates Britten’s astonishing progression from a musically gifted child to a consummate master of his craft at the age of just 21. The work’s four movements are memorably tuneful, technically polished and superbly conceived for the medium, the Playful Pizzicato being an especially delightful invention.
One of the more striking of the numerous works to have been published since Britten’s death in 1976 is the Temporal Variations for oboe and piano, composed in 1936 and first performed at the Wigmore Hall in December of that year by the oboist Natalie Caine, a friend of Britten’s from his Royal College of Music days. Although Britten declared himself pleased with the performance and the favourable audience response, the generally negative reviews of several critics may have played a part in his decision to withdraw the work, which was never heard again during his lifetime. Before composing the piece Britten had announced that he was working on a ‘large and elaborate suite for oboe and strings’. Although this did not materialise, in the early 1990s the oboist Nicholas Daniel (the soloist on the present recording) suggested to the composer Colin Matthews that an arrangement of the Variations for oboe and strings could well take the place of the aborted suite. Thus the première of the orchestrated version was given at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 1994 with Daniel as soloist and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford. Formally the work is a series of short character-sketches, by turns light-hearted and contemplative, bound together by use of the plangent semi-tone motif with which the oboe opens the work and with which it concludes. In this respect the Temporal Variations can be seen as something of a trial run for the more fully accomplished achievement of the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, composed some six months later.
A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41, was written in December 1947 for the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans, who had recently taken part in the first productions of The Rape of Lucretia, in which she sang the rôle of Lucretia, Albert Herring, in which she took the part of Nancy (appropriately enough), and who would appear again as Polly Peachum in Britten’s version of The Beggar’s Opera a year later. The work is one of the most genial and uncomplicated of Britten’s song-cycles, though not without some more agitated undercurrents, particularly in the two central songs, settings of Robert Greene’s Sephestia’s Lullaby and Thomas Randolph’s A Charm. Colin Matthews’ orchestral version, made to a commission from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1990, is scored for a small orchestra of double woodwind, two horns, harp and strings. In a few places the original voice-and-piano version has been altered or expanded, in Matthews’ words, ‘to give it the extra dimension needed for an orchestral song-cycle’ and the first three songs and the last two have been neatly linked, thus effectively weaving the work into an almost continuous whole.
Britten’s original version of Lachrymae for viola and piano was written in May 1950 as brief respite from labours on Billy Budd. Originally written for and dedicated to the violist William Primrose, Britten revised the work in 1970 for a performance at Aldeburgh with Cecil Aronowitz and made this arrangement for viola and string orchestra for the same player in February 1976. Subtitled Reflections on a song of John Dowland, the work does not so much grow out of the Dowland song ‘If my complaints could passions move’ on which it is based, as into it; thus the work proceeds by way of a sequence of contrasted variations (the sixth, marked Appassionato, quotes a second Dowland song, ‘Flow my tears’) towards the magical conclusion when the Dowland original, together with its own harmonization, appears to emerge from out of a mist, a moment made particularly telling in the orchestral version, when we seem to be hearing it across the distance of time, as if played by a consort of viols. Britten was to turn to Dowland once more in 1963 for his Nocturnal, Op. 70, written for the guitarist Julian Bream.
In December 1966, Britten composed a short ‘folk dance for wind and drums’ entitled Hankin Booby for the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in March 1967. He had often expressed his intention to find a larger context for this solitary miniature and seven years later, incorporated it into the Suite on English Folk Tunes, Op. 90, his last purely orchestral work, begun in October 1974 whilst on a visit to Wolfsgarten in Germany and completed at Horham, Suffolk, the following month. Dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger, himself an avid folk-song arranger, the work was composed for the forces of the English Chamber Orchestra (at that time the Aldeburgh Festival’s ‘house band’) and was first performed by them on 13th June 1975, with Steuart Bedford conducting. The work’s subtitle ‘A time there was…’ refers to the Thomas Hardy poem ‘Before life and after’ which Britten had set as the concluding song in his 1952 cycle Winter Words, a song which yearns for a return to a time ‘before the birth of consciousness, when all went well’. Each of the Suite’s five movements is based around a pair of tunes found either in Playford’s The Dancing Master, a collection of folk melodies published during the mid-seventeenth century, or collected orally from authentic rural sources. Britten’s earthy treatment of his folk-song material is at the furthest remove from the sentimentality often associated with the English pastoral tradition: the first movement, Cakes and Ale, is a vigorous scherzo marked ‘Fast and rough’ with prominent rôles for timpani and percussion, contrasted with a more warmly harmonized middle section. The Bitter Withy, derived from a Sussex song noted down by Vaughan Williams, is dominated by the solo harp (given the very Graingeresque marking ‘ringingly’), which is then exchanged for a more sombre texture with quiet unison strings and the dark sonority of two low horns and tubular bell. Hankin Booby is a somewhat caustic alla-Coranto that gains its pungent, quasi-medieval sound from its acid two-part contrapuntal writing and incisive scoring for woodwind and muted trumpets over a rhythmic tattoo played on a tamburo. Hunt the Squirrel engages the two violin sections in a lively Scottish-sounding reel, much of its rustic brilliance achieved by the effective use of open strings. The final movement is the only one to quote a folk song in toto: after an introduction based on snatches of a dance tune, Epping Forest, Britten faithfully reproduces the long melody Lord Melbourne as transcribed by Grainger himself, played ‘freely’ on the cor anglais over a harmonically static yet rhythmically fluid string accompaniment. This is followed by a development of the opening material, prompting a shortlived climax before fading away on a hushed C major chord, over which fragmentary reminiscences of the melody float by like echoes on the breeze.
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