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John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, November 2012

There probably isn’t another conductor alive who knows the works of Benjamin Britten better than Steuart Bedford. A booklet note tells us that he was an occasional collaborator with the composer and conducted Britten’s operas “throughout the world, including the world première of Death in Venice in 1973.” I don’t know if that qualifies Bedford’s interpretations as the most definitive ones—Previn, Hickox, Handley, Marriner, Rattle, and the composer himself being no slouches with the scores—but Bedford certainly makes them enjoyable.

I have to admit, though, that I liked the first and last of the five works on the disc best. They would be the youthful Simple Symphony (1934) and the far more mature but still enthusiastic Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974). The three other pieces, Temporal Variations (1936), A Charm of Lullabies (1947), and Lachrymae (1976) are a bit too serious and somber for my taste. Still, Bedford performs them all in an obviously loving manner, with no excessive affectations to mar the naturalness of the music.

The Naxos sound goes a long way as well toward helping one enjoy the album. The Naxos engineers have created a wonderfully clean, detailed soundstage, with instruments well defined and frequency balances well gauged. As the Northern Sinfonia is a relatively small group (Britten intended the music for chamber orchestras or even quartets), the textures would presumably be more transparent, anyway, but the Naxos sonics make a good thing even better. Well, actually, the relatively low price probably makes it even better. I mean, what more could one ask for than excellent performances in excellent sound at the such a reasonable price? © 2012 Classical Candor




Penguin Guide, January 2009

Steuart Bedford brings the keenest intelligence and intuitive feeling to everything here. The anthology spans the whole of Britten’s career. The Temporal Variations of 1936, originally for oboe and piano, are effectively scored for strings by Colin Matthews—as, for that matter is his orchestration of A Charm of Lullabies of 11 years later. The elegiac, valedictory Suite on English Folk Tunes is touching and affecting, and Bedford’s is the finest reading of it in the current catalogue. All the soloists are impeccable and the disc fills an important gap in the Britten discography with real distinction, to say nothing of economy.



Fanfare, July 2005

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Gwyn Parry-Jones
MusicWeb International, February 2005

"This CD contains music composed over the entire span of Britten’s career, from the early Simple Symphony based on themes written in childhood, to the orchestral version of Lachrymae, a work from 1976, the year of his death. Another feature of the programme is that each work reached the form it has here by stages. Temporal Variations and A Charm of Lullabies have been orchestrated by Colin Matthews. As already mentioned, the Simple Symphony is an arrangement and expansion of music written earlier. Lachrymae is the composer’s own orchestral version of a viola and piano work first performed in 1950. A time there was ... started life as a single movement, Hankin Booby, to which Britten later added four more.

This CD is entirely equal to the generally very high standard set by the Britten re-issues that have been flowing from Naxos for some time now. For me, the least impressive performance on this disc is the Simple Symphony, which, though more than adequate, lacks a little panache and conviction. It is a very youthful work, being premiered when the composer was just twenty-one. Yet it is undeniably brilliant, both in the content and in use of the resources of the string body. I emphasise that this is not a weak performance, but just doesn’t quite reach the level I feel I can expect from Bedford in his interpretations of this composer.

Nicholas Daniel, on the other hand, gives a truly stunning account of the Temporal Variations. It is a fascinating piece, written for an oboist friend in 1936, and unaccountably withdrawn by the composer after its premiere. It has been published since Britten’s death, and has now settled firmly in the repertoire of enterprising oboists – in fact another version for review, though this time of the version with piano accompaniment, has landed on my desk and will be reviewed shortly.

The theme has a plaintive rising semitone as its main idea, and the variations, though tiny, are masterly, as Britten’s later, larger-scale exercises in the form would lead us to expect. Var. 4, entitled ‘Commination’ (which I discover means a ‘threat of divine retribution’) looks forward in its rapid staccato to Phaeton in the Ovid Metamorphoses for solo oboe, and gives way to a wondrous chorale, in which the string phrases are punctuated by single very soft sustained oboe notes. Magical, and realised with superb artistry by Daniel and the orchestra.

Colin Matthews made a splendid job of orchestrating the Temporal Variations, and the same can be said of his version of A Charm of Lullabies. I am not convinced, however, by his decision to link the first three songs together; certainly the transition from the first to the second is, to say the least, a bit of a harmonic shock! Nevertheless, Catherine Wyn-Rogers is an outstandingly tender and sensitive soloist, making these five songs a haunting experience.

The Suite on English Folk-Tunes is subtitled ‘A time there was…’ , quoting enigmatically from Thomas Hardy’s poem Before life and after, which Britten had set as the final song of Winter Words. This suite deserves to be more popular, and, in its light-hearted way, is thoroughly representative of the composer’s genius. Strikingly, he chooses to end with the saddest of the songs, Lord Melbourne, which is set as a melancholy cor anglais solo, creating a heavy, doom-laden atmosphere.

And so Naxos has unfolded yet more layers of this astonishing composer; an issue to cherish, and, at over seventy minutes, excellent value too."



David Hurwitz
ClassicsToday.com, March 2004

"The Trois aquarelles for flute, cello, and piano comprise the most substantial piece on this disc, lasting nearly a quarter hour, and they're so lovely that it's almost painful. Also noteworthy: the sexy little Divertissement grec for two flutes and harp, and the charming Suite in four movements that concludes the disc. But really, if you like any of it, you'll love all of it. Boston Symphony Orchestra flutist Fenwick Smith plays these pieces with a big, full tone and complete absence of irritating breathiness. In the Divertissement, he and his BSO colleague Jacques Zoon play wooden flutes, and his fellow musicians support him admirably. Pianist Sally Pinkas makes a particularly considerate partner, managing to characterize her playing quite well without overwhelming the flute in climactic passages. The sonics also do full justice to Smith's limpid tone and offer excellent balances between the various performers...this is a delightful disc by any standard, and one that works equally well as a light background or as an engaging foreground."






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