This disc is, in theory, a wonderful piece of programming. To set the music of Colin McPhee, the Canadian expert on Balinese gamelan music in the Thirties, next to The Prince of the Pagodas, the first flowering of Britten's lasting fascination with gamelan music which was written soon after his return from Bali, is a smashing idea. Particularly as they knew each other during Britten's wartime stay in America and performed and recorded McPhee's 2-piano Balinese Ceremonial Music together. That recording from 1941 is the first item on this disc. It seems that Britten was not convinced by the value of this music at that time: McPhee wrote in Britten's copy of the score, "To Ben - hoping he will find something in this music after all." Yet these pieces eerily foreshadow the Pagoda music in the later ballet and even some of Tadziu's music in Death in Venice, written at the end of Britten's life. And the performance certainly shows no lack of conviction.
This old recording is followed by a modern performance of McPhee's most famous original composition, Tabuh-Tabuhan. This fascinating piece, a precursor of American minimalism, sounds a bit like the work of a Balinese Gershwin with a few of Percy Grainger's Warriors thrown in for good measure. It is the central Nocturne, which sets long-breathed melodies over the repetitive percussive patterns of the gamelan, that comes off best.
The disappointment on this disc is the Britten work. What should have been a fascinating and enlightening juxtaposition is compromised by a far from ideal performance by Slatkin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke's Suite from the ballet. Tempi are consistently either too fast or more often too slow. The piece sounds under-rehearsed and ensemble, especially among the percussion, is frequently far from perfect. Much better to go to the complete ballet under the composer or, better still, to the even more complete performance under Oliver Knussen on Virgin.
It's a shame, because this should have been a fascinating issue. An opportunity missed.