Tag Archives: Simon Rattle

Britten’s Sea Interludes

I was introduced to the Britten Peter Grimes Interludes by my uncle, a classical LP collector who unfortunately tossed his entire collection of early stereo LPs when going through a divorce years ago. I can’t remember, for the life of me, the performance he first sent me on cassette tape. I wound up learning to love the four-movement suite, despite an inability to ever connect with Britten overall, in his operatic works or otherwise. In this short ensemble however he grabs you and holds on tight.

I was sparked to revisit my preferences in this piece recently when uncovering a Van Beinum Concertgebouw mono LP, LL-917, the old red/gold FFRR label. Available on CD here, thought I can’t vouch for its sound quality. After a round on the VPI, I was shocked at the vivid sound and subtle performance of my old, round piece of plastic. I’d though one would only get this kind of trascendent performance from an English countrymen in such a work as this. But depsite the ticks and pops this is one remarkable reading. The orchestral depth is clear and arresting in both the attaca segments, and in the gentler ones.

The contenders I compared it with are Previn, on EMI/HMV 37142, unparalleled for sound in four-channel quadraphonic. Indeed this is one of the finest of all SQ quad records I’ve encountered — not ping-pong sonics with tubas coming from back left, but a full, rich sense of being in the middle of the orchestra. And when then full richness of “Moonlight” sinks over you, there is no other way to experience it. Van Beinum is skittish and edgy, vigorous, but even through the fog of years and technological development, cannot parallel Previn’s voluptuousness.

And in the modern digital class I still recognize Handley, on Chandos 1184. Whatever my uncle sent me on tape, this was my first CD of the piece, and it has not grown old. Compared to Previn (rich, measured, and voluptuous) and Van Beinum (edgy and energetic) Handley seems almost restrained, with that gorgeous Chandos sound, its vague reverb and even rhythms. How English! The opening bars are sprite-like, cascading and evoking an almost fantasy-like experience (nowhere more so than in those last few uneasy bars of the fourth movement). In this the Handley version is unique and delivers something entirely different from either Previn or Van Beinum.

There is a secret in these bars, and white maybe the most direct of these three interpreters, Handley’s hands manage the secret in most sensitive terms. Previn wraps us up in the secret, envelops us in it unabashedly. Van Beinum makes it a challenge to us. But Handley eases us in to the mystery. All three interpretations are revealing.

Together the trio present a full range of how these “Interludes” can be presented, painted in the most vivid and differentiated orchestral colors. Truly different interpretations of an underappreciated work.

P.S. Maybe Sir Simon will program this with Berlin. I would love to hear it, and I’m probably not alone.

Debussy’s Jeux, etc.

Jeux is known as a puzzle, and there are very few recordings of the work — or performances attempted. I just acquired a copy of Ansermet with the OSR on London’s Treasury Series, 15022. The recordings in my collection otherwise are Martinon from his ORTF cycle, in quadraphonic sound, EMI 37066, and de Sabata on CD with the Accademia de Santa Cecilia, an early RAI mono recording which is absolutely stunning — particularly in the coupled work, the Nocturnes.

Sabata is dramatic and precise, and the mono sound gives the Jeux an appropriately mysterious sound. Sabata is always interesting and I was glad to discover this on the EMI/Testament label some years ago; I have had no luck finding whether it exists on vinyl or even 78. His tempi are relatively quick, which I think is more attuned to the tenor of the piece. The CD sound is exemplary for the era.

For richness, though, Martinon’s 4-channel recording (1974) is unmatched. It is pure sorcery. Slower tempi, but the sounds resonate through each eerie phrase and snap of percussion. I have a virgin vinyl copy, sealed and played only a couple of times. The sense of depth and resonance is among the best stereo, or quadraphonic, discs in my collection. Jeux wanders about a bit as a work, but it is a splendid wandering. Not as abstract as, say, Arnold Bax in his woods and gardens of Fand, but less directional than Debussy in the Nocturnes or Prelude. Here he is letting himself go. Martinon has the measure of this work and simply lets it flow, whereas Sabata tries to pin it down. Martinon is available in various CD iterations.

Ansermet is my latest addition, and as I listen to it now I have the mixed reaction I typically do to his recordings — so valued by audiophiles and collectors. It seems to me a superficial reading, and the sound is opulent…but lacking depth. Not lacking sonic range, to be sure, but depth. It is a flowing rendition, smooth and well directed. But lacking the drama of Sabata or the magic of Martinon. The sound on the orange label STS disc is superb as is to be expected from this series, ever sometimes surpassing their original Blueback first pressings. It’s available on up-to-date CD remaster.

The reason I’ll be keeping this disc is not the Jeux, but it’s pairing, Dukas’s La Peri. I’ve always admired this dramatic work, so rarely performed or recorded. My prior copy is Pierre Boulez, in quadraphonic, on CBS 32401. It is a good recording with excellent quad sound — but here, ironically, it is Ansermet’s opulence which provides the contrast. This is showpiece music, not a musical puzzle like Jeux. Ansermet’s style works for me here.

P.S. I don’t have it in my collection any longer, but Simon Rattle’s version Jeux also receives much critical praise. I recall it falling more into the Ansermet category, without the gusto or careful presentation to make a difficult work succeed. Maybe I should give him a second go; or wait for it with the Berliners, which would be amazing.