A Crop of Recordings XXXIV: British Harvest—Britten, Bridge, Berkeley, Bliss, Walton, Vaughan Williams

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Pen Pits (1936), painting by Edward Alexander Wadsworth (1889 – 1949), now in a private collection; photograph kindly supplied by Sotheby’s. The house, at Pen Selwood, Somerset, a classic piece of 1930s design inspired by the Bauhaus style, was built in 1935 for Arthur Bliss and his wife by Peter Harland (1900 – 1973).

Pen Pits (1936), painting by Edward Alexander Wadsworth (1889 – 1949), now in a private collection; photograph kindly supplied by Sotheby’s. The house, at Pen Selwood, Somerset, a classic piece of 1930s design inspired by the Bauhaus style, was built in 1935 for Arthur Bliss and his wife by Peter Harland (1900 – 1973).

≈ ENGLISH MUSIC FOR STRINGS ● John Wilson, conductor; Sinfonia of London ● CHANDOS 5264 (Streaming audio: 64:46) https://youtu.be/SVh_FYs60NQ

BRITTEN Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. BRIDGE Lament. BERKELEY Serenade for Strings. BLISS Music for Strings

It’s rare that a recording for strings alone wows listeners as a sonic blockbuster, but I celebrate this one from its first plucked, throbbing, filigree-laced chords. John Wilson has effectively reconstituted the Sinfonia of London, known to many in fond memory for Sir John Barbirolli’s unsurpassed 1962 LP of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Wilson has set himself up for recording purposes in St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn with stunning results. I don’t think I have ever heard an acoustic more flattering to strings. He also exercises tact in not trying to reproduce the magic of Barbirolli’s program, bringing us instead string works by four of the major “B’s” of twentieth century English music. Only Bax is missing.

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, first on the program, is the early work which brought the composer fame, and it is a tour de force of the effects and musical genres one can pull off convincingly with strings alone, ranging from a sardonic Viennese waltz to a “Romance” as lonely as Shostakovich, and a fugal ending which manages to make Bridge’s wan feathery theme blossom into something memorable. Britten is not a composer who reaches out to one immediately with melodic emotion, so I am almost surprised to react as I do to the sheer gleaming beauty of it.  

Bridge’s Lament is a 1915 war memorial for a family of eight who perished on the Lusitania. It owes something to Sibelius’s Valse Triste in conveying a halting, breathing quality, and to Delius for its sadly wavelike, rocking melodic profile, a sort of Late Swallows for gulls and waves. It’s a genuinely lovely piece.

The 1930s were clearly a vigorous era of cross-fertilization in string music, and the pieces here by Britten, Berkeley and Bliss, written within three years of each other, make use of a newfound sense of neoclassic direction taken from Stravinsky, Prokofiev and possibly even Tubin, whose Second and Third Symphonies feature a certain kind of swirling string writing and may have been known to them. They share certain attributes in common, though the Berkeley Serenade for Strings looks back towards Dvořák more than the others. Even so, Berkeley concludes his string piece with a gentle glowing chorale which might as well be by Hindemith, only warmer and more impassioned. It conveys a reverential feeling like the beginning of Nobilissima Visione. I find myself repeatedly playing it.

The last work on this program, Sir Arthur Bliss’s Music for Strings is the most richly symphonic sounding of the group, featuring a rather unhappily impassioned slow movement and a great deal of vigor and eerie virtuosity. Much of it sounds original, and I hear a passage here and there which suggests the affecting melody Sir Michael Tippett will soon use in the last movement of his Concerto for Double String Orchestra. 

I do have a problem with the first movement, though. About a minute and a half into the piece you sit bolt upright and realize that a wonderful throbbing passage is nearly a literal copy of Apollo’s theme from Stravinsky’s ballet of the same name. Ultimately, this Stravinsky passage turns out to be the centerpiece of the movement. It’s a little odd to be seesawed between this and the more Hollywood sort of intensity with which Bliss surrounds it. Nobody seems to have complained much at the time, though, so I will sit back and simply enjoy the music. This remains one of the most beautiful string programs I have yet encountered.  

Sir William Walton

Sir William Walton

≈ WALTON Troilus and Cressida: Symphonic Suite (arr. C. Palmer) ● Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra ● DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4839285 (Streaming audio: 31:33) Live: Hamburg 9/10/2019 


This short release (31 minutes) from Deutsche Grammophon represents a second installment in Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s “British Project” with the City of Birmingham Symphony, the first being a recording of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem well received in Fanfare issue 44:4 (Mar/Apr 2021). The beautifully miked DG soundstage and bright gleaming sonority of the City of Birmingham orchestra, as noted then, are evident here, too.

In some ways this is an easy performance to review, as you will see. There exists for competition on disc, as far as I know, only one other version of Sir William Walton’s suite from Troilus and Cressida. Bryden Thomson recorded the premiere in St. Jude’s Church for Chandos with the London Philharmonic in 1990, along with the Second Symphony, and that remains until now the only CD. Although Walton himself never composed a dedicated arrangement, perhaps disappointed at how quickly Troilus and Cressida faded from public view following its promising 1955 premiere, there is much first-rate music in the opera, and Christopher Palmer’s suite pulls it together coherently.

Walton’s evolution as an artist is illustrative of the challenges and temptations faced by many composers in the 20th century: post romantic megalomania; serialism; neoclassicism. How to thread a path among them? Walton burst upon his generation as a witty eclectic leaning in a Stravinskian direction. His dashing telegraphic style fit perfectly the neoclassic world, and his dissonances appeased the serialists. But underneath it all Walton was a romantic with an admiration for Respighi and a passionate sensibility, as Bryden Thomson’s lush response to the music makes clear–and as the ever more cinematic tendencies of Walton’s late manner demonstrate. The music here features numerous Korngold-like celesta moments. Walton’s second Symphony, written soon after the opera, contains a slow movement climax of nearly Puccinian sweep. 

The Troilus and Cressida Suite gives a conductor opportunities to slalom between styles. It begins with the sort of rich rolling Wagnerian menace you encounter in Gliere’s Ilya Murometz, switches to BBC bird twitters and hedgerow perk in the Scherzo, delivers a gentle sense of romance along with a graphic, headboard-banging romantic encounter in “The Lovers”, and finishes with marchlike tendencies owing considerably to Respighi. Indeed, the last chord before the finale begins here is the same chord Respighi uses to wind up “Pines of the Janiculum” in Pines of Rome.

So now we have two recordings of this music. What makes reviewing it easy, as I suggest above, is not that there are only two choices, which certainly helps one choose, but that conductors of such opposite temperament are at issue. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is intent on teasing out the inner Stravinsky in Walton. She supplies shimmering clarity and crisp energy throughout–a treble balanced sonority. When it comes to romance, though, she is a little more detached, a little more likely to be brisk and miss the lilt of things. Thomson, by contrast, is clearly channeling Wagner. So it’s really up to the listener. If you think of Walton in the same breath as Stravinsky, if you like champagne glass Jeu de cartes sonorities, then Gražinytė-Tyla is for you. If you dream of being swept away on an ocean of cinematic uplift, then Bryden Thomson is your knowing guide. https://youtu.be/q6_N-XZgE0k

Ursula and Ralph Vaughan Williams on their wedding day in 1953.

Ursula and Ralph Vaughan Williams on their wedding day in 1953.

≈ VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6 ● Antonio Pappano, conductor; London Symphony Orchestra ● LSO LIVE 0867D (Streaming audio: 68:06) Live: Barbican Hall, London ¹12/12/2019;² 3/15/2020 


There was a time not so long ago when one would have been immensely grateful for any release of a Vaughan Williams symphony by a major orchestra. Certainly, the performances here tick all essential boxes for getting to know these symphonies. Vaughan Williams has fortunately entered the pantheon of international composers in the public mind, something hoped for, if not at all certain when I was young. Although I have yet to run into a Vaughan Williams CD from France, recordings have become frequent, and the listener is rewarded with choice. This means, though, that now we get to be picky.

I am sometimes reluctant to review performances taking place in London’s Barbican and Festival Halls, both of which I know well in person, because musical excellence is so frequently defeated by the absence of a satisfying acoustic, and one doesn’t want to throw a wet blanket over the reputations of the participants. Music, after all, is sound, and what do you do if the sound is ugly, or even absent? So it bears saying here that the Barbican does not in this instance behave as badly as it can for the engineers, conveying a hint of warmth along the way, but the essential dry boxiness of the hall and its absence of deep bass persists.

Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, played flat-out, amounts to the greatest temper-tantrum in our musical patrimony. Pundits have always insisted on grandiose explanations for its intensity and credited it with predicting the Second World War, but the composer himself denied anything geopolitical. Ursula Vaughan Williams probably had the last word in pointing out that her husband had a hot temper and tended to slam doors. That’s what the symphony is really about.

Unlike the Sixth Symphony, which one could say is powered by its bass drum sonorities, the Vaughan Williams Fourth is lean and orchestrated in a manner almost bass-shy, so the lack of floor shaking depths in the Barbican is not so much at issue. Pappano is mainstream in his tempos, but there is a slight loss of energy and focus in the development of the first movement, and if I were to have a general criticism, it would be that the last degree of viciousness is missing from this performance, though it improves as it goes along. As a countervailing virtue, Pappano phrases a number of lyrical moments vocally, like Italian opera. He does have something to say in the piece.

When it comes to the Sixth Symphony, one need only compare this release to Andrew Davis’s BBC Symphony CD to hear just how much of the music is really missing down below. https://youtu.be/YzBCAU7cZ7A Pappano is otherwise fine here. The lyrical ending of the first movement, so nostalgically used by the BBC in its 70s drama, A Family at War, comes off well. And he achieves wonderful quiet in Vaughan Williams’s spooky Epilogue. But I miss the evil, rolling bass drum sonorities everywhere else.

The LSO plays well under the circumstances. It is a great orchestra, but it deserves a hall worthy of its abilities. Halls have consequences down the line for the reputations of the performers. We would listen to more Toscanini, if Studio 8H had not been so wretched. Instead we play Bruno Walter in limpid sound. And I suspect, because of the deficiencies here, if someone puts on a Vaughan Williams Symphony to play at home fifty years from now, it may be Andrew Davis or Bryden Thomson doing the honors rather than Antonio Pappano. Davis and Thomson were fortunate to be recorded in venues satisfying to the ear, and we vote, after all, with our ears. 

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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