Imogen Holst, Arthur Oldham, Michael Tippett, Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Humphrey Searle & William Walton
Variations on an Elizabethan Theme

Malcolm Arnold, Alun Hoddinott, Nicholas Maw, Daniel Jones, Grace Williams & Michael Tippett
Severn Bridge Variations

Oliver Knussen, Robert Saxton, Robin Holloway, Judith Weir, Alexander Goehr, Colin Matthews & David Bedford
Variations on Sumer Is Icumen In
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jac van Steen
CD No: NMC D062
Duration: 56 minutes
Reviewed: April 2001
Twenty pieces, nineteen composers, three sets of variations. Of Tippett’s two contributions, the first is a beautiful Purcellian movement, solo violin to the fore, one reminding of his Corelli Fantasia, which forms the heart of the Britten-initiated, 1953 Coronation-inspired Elizabethan collection for which Imogen Holst went no further than arranging William Byrd’s transcription of ‘Sellenger’s Round’ (sic) for the nominated string orchestra. Arthur Oldham begins ‘light’ then derives from Britten’s Frank Bridge variations; Britten himself offers a vital, if somewhat anonymous, rhythmic commentary. Lennox Berkeley’s impeccable craftsmanship is evident in his gentle creation that contrasts with Searle’s nocturnal murmurs and more angular expression. Walton’s bouncing finale is intrinsically sentimental, with a nursery-rhyme scan, before a rich re-statement of the round-tune.
This composite works rather well; the next – 1966, for the opening of the bridge-link between England and Wales – is less successful; maybe apparent stylistic uncertainties epitomise the ‘sixties. Hoddinott is expressively ambiguous and textually variegated; Maw conjures a supernatural world. Searle’s angularity passes to Daniel Jones (who’s somewhat portentous); Grace Williams is more conciliatory but her longer structure needs more than touching refrains to sustain it. Tippett raises the stakes – busy and inventive – but it’s not vintage and curiously fragmented; ‘cool’ percussion and jagged fanfares carry Tippett’s signature as affirmation is reached, befitting a celebration, but the mid-air ending isn’t conclusive … but perhaps speaks eloquently of its time.
No indication is given in the booklet note as to whether the respective composers knew where their offering would be placed, or next to which colleague; Severn Bridge is rather disjointed.
The composers beginning each work are required to present the melody - Malcolm Arnold finds fun then import in Severn’s Welsh hymn; Oliver Knussen identifies himself first through a characteristic spectral display before stating the 13th-century catalyst plain and simple. In 1987 – Aldeburgh Festival’s 40th - the commissioned composers seem more at ease. Saxton’s apparitions are more integrated than Maw’s, and Robin Holloway’s pastoral picture nostalgically warms into spring with a cor anglais masquerading as a lone shepherd’s pipe. Judith Weir continues the mood and returns home for a lamenting oboe-cum-bagpipe ‘pibroch’.
Alexander Goehr’s wonderful six-minute invention is alone worth the price of the disc. Flute and horn distantly call over a fragile, expressive landscape - an atmospheric exposition of shifting textures, one long-viewed and organically built; the string blossoming (from 4’56”) is a rapturous moment.
Colin Matthews destroys this raptness with a pile-driving commentary – mechanical and hectoring – that is compellingly disruptive. David Bedford ends proceedings with a carillon treatment of the tune, jubilantly sounded and not a little ‘fifties and, with it, suggests a full-circle return to the composerly sureness enjoyed thirty years earlier.
Good performances under the exacting Jac van Steen are complemented by superb sound, which reproduces the clarity of Maida Vale’s Studio One realistically.

 

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