Gloriana – Symphonic Suite, Op.53a
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op.68
Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes, Op.33a
Paul Watkins (cello)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Recorded 14 & 15 July 2010 in BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: April 2011
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10658
Duration: 76 minutes
This well-programmed disc of Britten orchestral works gives Edward Gardner the chance to build on previous experience with the composer’s music in the opera house. There he conducted English National Opera’s extremely well received productions of “Death in Venice” and “Peter Grimes”, and was praised for his empathy with Britten’s music. The connection is renewed with considerable success here. The ‘Sea Interludes’ from “Peter Grimes” are atmospheric and beautifully textured, setting the scene of the Suffolk coast in ‘Dawn’. Gardner is relatively quick here, his pauses for reflection brief but poignant. ‘Moonlight’ takes its time more, creeping in softly and slowly, Gardner noting its rubato direction, while the busy ‘Sunday Morning’ and a spiky ‘Storm’ find the BBC Philharmonic’s wind and brass on terrific form, the flashes of lightning in the latter particularly vivid.
The brass is again the standout in the music arranged into a suite from perhaps Britten’s least successful opera, “Gloriana”. The bright and breezy fanfares give an initial bluster to ‘The Tournament’, with an affectionate slower section, nicely punctuated by thrumming harp, starting the quotation of the song “Green leaves are we” on a reverential note. Gardner takes the option of using a tenor soloist for ‘Lute Song’, though despite the clarity of Robert Murray’s singing there is no reproduction of the words in the accompanying booklet. ‘Courtly Dances’ is given a rustic feel, helped by the open strings of violas and cellos, while brightly coloured clarinets in ‘Morris Dance’ are followed by a solemn ‘Galliard’. The relative cheer does not last, mind, and as the initial thematic material returns the suite subsides into regret at the execution of the main character, Gardner ensuring the emotional impact is keen as the music dies away.
Cello Symphony begins rather too quickly after this, though the fact it starts in the same key (D minor) in which “Gloriana” ends heightens the impact of Paul Watkins’s dramatic opening salvo. The Symphony remains one of Britten’s most difficult compositions to get right, the problems lying in the challenge of achieving satisfactory balance between soloist and orchestra, not to mention fiendishly difficult wind and brass parts. The BBC Philharmonic is on fine form, with willowy lines rising from the depths to complement Watkins’s tense outbursts in music of dramatic colour and shadow. Where Gardner and Watkins work particularly well together is in the soft music, where there is some nicely shaded detail. In some of the more percussive outbursts however the recording can become difficult to enjoy in a dry acoustic, but it is certainly vivid and wide-ranging. That said Watkins brings keen emotion to his part, from longer, ruminative phrases to some fractious dialogue with the woodwind. He comes into his own in the swooping melody of the Adagio, a full tone aiding by passionate outpouring, the BBC Philharmonic strings complementing him. The cadenza is perfectly paced, too. It is gratifying to have a version of this challenging work in the catalogue to complement Pieter Wispelwey’s extremely fine recent account for Onyx. In comparison Paul Watkins may not be as aggressive, less prone to outbursts perhaps, though he has an eager sense of structure and progression.
This fine disc, uniting familiar and less familiar strands of Britten’s orchestral output, is capped by an appropriately atmospheric cover shot of a boat on Aldeburgh beach, setting the scene perfectly for the “Peter Grimes” extracts.