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HALL OF FAMEon 26 November 2005
[Amazon had not yet listed the precise contents of this disc at the date of this review. It contains Britten's Violin Concerto, Canadian Carnival Overture, and the suite he wrote jointly with Sir Lennox Berkeley -- Mont Juic: Suite of Catalan Dances. All are played by Steuart Bedford, our leading Britten specialist, with the English Chamber Orchestra, all recorded at The Maltings, Snape, in 1989. Lorraine McAslan is the very fine violinist in the concerto. The program was previously released by Collins Classics in 1990 - and I notice that version is also still listed here at Amazon, but only available from resellers.]
It's a mystery to me why the Britten Violin Concerto isn't played more. It's certainly equal to those of Prokofiev and Shostakovich (and shares with the latter's No. 1 the use of a massive passacaglia for one of its movements) and comes close to the Berg Concerto in my opinion. Written in 1938, the concerto is a serious work reflecting Britten's concerns about the situation in Europe; it was also written not long after he had heard the première of Berg's equally elegiac Violin Concerto. I have heard one previous recording of the concerto by Mark Lubotsky with orchestra conducted by Britten himself. (I believe Ida Haendel also recorded it, and that would probably be a marvelous performance, but I've not heard it.) Without question, Lorraine McAslan is more secure player than Lubotsky and additionally she brings a honeyed tone in the more lyrical passages and an astringent bite in those that are dramatic and desperate. The sound is much superior to that of the Lubotsky/Britten performance; however, the latter has been coupled with the Richter/Britten performance of the Piano Concerto and that is a definite plus, although I have quite liked Joanna MacGregor's more recent account of the Piano Concerto (also conducted by Bedford and re-released on Naxos.)
'Canadian Carnival' Overture is an early work, written while Britten and Pears were in Canada prior to settling in the US in 1939. It is a light piece, redolent of Copland's wide-open-spaces 'American' sound. It is rarely played but in this performance one wonders why. It would be a perfect concert opener, with its brash and optimistic tone. It contains an off-handed treatment of the Canadian folksong, 'Alouette,' at mid-point, and then returns to the opening trumpet fanfare idea in a massive climax. An entirely agreeable piece, not major Britten but worth hearing. And it is given a good performance here.
'Mont Juic: A Suite of Catalan Dances' was a joint effort of Britten and his friend, fellow-composer Lennox Berkeley. They wrote it in memory of a mutual friend who had died in an airplane crash in 1937. Berkeley wrote the first two movements, Britten the last two, although each had a hand in the orchestration and form of the others' movements. Each of the movements is brief -- the whole thing lasts only twelve minutes -- and is based on a collection of infectious Catalan folksongs. Again, not a major piece, but an enjoyable one.
The reason to buy this issue is the marvelous performance of the Violin Concerto.
Scott Morrison
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on 14 November 2013
Although the performance of the Violin Concerto does not wipe out the memory of that by Ida Haendel, it is, nonetheless impassioned and committed. The Naxos recording is excellent. Well worth the money.
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