© Chris Green, November 2020
Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op 31
Alto ALC 1413 • 79' •
I have lived in the edge of Britten-land for most of my life, and during that time have conducted at Snape Maltings on many occasions well as enjoying the tenure by Imogen Holst as the first President of Trianon Music Group which I founded over 60 years ago.
Now, one would think that living on the doorstep of Britten land would make me a keen admirer of his music. Truth to tell, In am getting fonder, but I suspect that part of my ambivalence stems from knowing many of those who suffered from his intemperate behaviour and use of people.
Currently I am read reading one of the latest biographies of the composer in which the author records how frequently Britten's music was criticised as being "clever", "more superficial" than "substance". Truth to tell one can hear that in many of the earlier works and yet it challenged the status quo of a generation of older composers who were influenced by the Germanic model of classical music. Yes, Britten was musically very clever and sometimes one senses that he knew that, and wanted to show others. Perhaps The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is as good an example, yet it served the purpose of introducing so many to the structure of the orchestra despite the coy narrative that accompanied it (listen to Sir Malcolm Sargent delivering it and one winces each time a link come sbout).
Having said all of this, it is really good to encounter a CD reissue win which some of his major orchestral works are interpreted by a range of conductors some of whom one would not readily associate with Britten's works; for example, Herbert von Karajan conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. This was recorded in 1954 during the time he spent as this orchestra's Principal Conductor early years under the management of Walter Legge.
Peter Pears and Dennis Brain provide the "dream team" in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings with Eugene Goossens conducting (Goossens turns out to have been a good friend of Britten's). With all these historic performances to savour, it is the last which I find most fascinating, Here a selection from Soir é es Musicales is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra from a 1957 recording. The collection of pieces based on Rossini's tunes originates from the music score for a GPO film, The Tocher - itself a wonderful piece of film promoting -well, I will not give the purpose away because there is a real sting in tail of the short cartoon. Back to this recording and my interest in it. Britten seems to have loathed Boult's conducting style, repeatedly writing in letters how it was little short of an abomination, and listening to the opening March I can see what Britten may not have appreciated. It is noisy and less than accurate. But lay behind Britten's attitude? We shall never know.