CD Review

In the pantheon of musical greatness


© Chris Green, August 2011


When Benjamin Britten set to work on composing music for the educational film TheYoung Person’s Guide to the Orchestra he wittingly or unwittingly was doing more than many other British composers to secure Purcell a place in the pantheon of musical greatness. At the time, that would be 1945, Britten delighted in the supple tune from music written by Purcell for a theatre production of Abdelazar. Who had heard of the play? Few, I would imagine, but now “that” tune impressively burns its way into the memory as it introduces and ends this glorious orchestral piece. If you want more about Britten’s piece and his life in a much abbreviated but entirely engaging volume, then I recommend John Bridcut’s Benjamin Britten (Faber Pocket Guides). Bridcut manages to pack into the book more than in many more academic tomes, and is not one of the unashamedly apologists for Britten.

Purcell’s music for the theatre is represented by dozens of movements or “Ayres” as he would describe them. Abdelazar or The Moor’s Revenge from 1695 is one of the many collections of incidental music recorded by The Parley of Instruments Baroque Orchestra directed by Roy Goodman and available as a triple CD (Hyperion CDA67001/3). Recorded in 1995, this disc represented a major addition to the catalogue, both in respect to the scholarship that underpinned it but also to the performing style. Peter Holman shares some of the directing responsibilities with the Parley of Instruments smaller ensemble in this recording of music that first appeared two years after Purcell’s death in 1695, and in itself the collection was a “first” because it represented the first printed edition of music devoted to music for the theatre.

Whilst many of Britten’s contemporaries were dismissive of music from the baroque age and ignored the contribution and musical worth of successive British generations of composers, the same was true in other European countries and yet there were those who recognised the value of the music. Carl Orff, for example was the first to edit music by the Renaissance Italian Monteverdi. Vivaldi may have suffered a fate then, but look how he has made good? The world is awash with recordings of his concerti and few months pass without a new release emerging showcasing the talents of one or other string players. Kennedy was amongst the first to receive this treatment with his recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. It hardly seems possible that it was 1989 when the musical world woke up to Kennedy’s somewhat quirky take on the four sets of concerti that comprise this, but be that as it may, the EMI recording has proved entirely durable and has been reissued with a DVD in which Nige introduces each concerto, so CD and DVD ensure that Kennedy and Vivaldi live on (EMI 2 42738 2).

However, things have moved on and listening to the four members of Red Priest perform Vivaldi is like being in a different world. Piers Adams (recorders) has long been pursuing the baroque trail, but I guess even he would not imagine that he would be part of a highly successful marketing ploy as the collective Red Priest recorded albums with titles such as Nightmare in Venice (Red Priest RP002), and Pirates ofthe Baroque (Red Priest RP004). But if you thought that successful marketing was sufficient, be assured that the contents will raise more than an eyebrow. Always musical, the players push the stylistic interpretations. Nightmare in Venice is as good a place to start with works by Vivaldi, Leclair and Corelli plus good old Purcell.

Chris Green conducts Trianon Choir and Symphony Orchestra in Trianon at Snape on Saturday 10 September. The concert at Snape Maltings opens with Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and includes music by Francis Poulenc, Randall Thompson, Morten Lauridsen and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.