Benjamin Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations (1937, not short of recordings, including by the composer, for Decca, and Karajan for that matter, Philharmonia Orchestra) leaps off the page here, although it could be argued that John Wilson sometimes harries the music and that tempos can seem too fast. Conversely, the playing is fabulous and white-hot and there is also a palpable/exhilarating pioneering spirit on behalf of the music, suggesting that Britten’s youthful and fecund imagination was simply too quick for the speed of his pen. Pretty marvellous though, many thrills apparent, and – in the ‘Funeral March’ – searing emotional depths, captured in Ralph Couzens’s superb sound, opulent and biting in St Augustine’s, Kilburn, January last year.
At the other end of the disc is Sir Arthur Bliss’s contemporaneous Music for Strings (1935, recorded by the composer, later by Hugo Rignold and Sir Adrian Boult, amongst others). Wilson and the Sinfonia do it proud – fiery, passionate, rhythmically adroit, peering into its expressive crevices, not least in the attacca slow movement (which is beautifully prepared for by Wilson and his players), heartfelt and ecstatic, a glowing moonlit evocation. The Finale strides with purpose to a dazzling conclusion.
Between these masterworks are Frank Bridge’s own Lament (1915) – shadowy and inner-feeling-eloquent – and Sir Lennox Berkeley’s four-movement Serenade (1939), delightfully open-air and sweetly lyrically music, soulful too, and consummately composed. Maybe a second volume will follow – how about Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia and Walton’s Sonata for Strings as well as his wonderful Henry V string pieces. Meanwhile … Brian Pidgeon’s current immaculate production is on Chandos CHSA 5264 [SACD].