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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The Occasional Overture was written for the opening of the BBC Third Programme in 1946. It is a rumbustious piece that might almost have been written by Malcolm Arnold rather than Britten. The other works are more familiar and often recorded, but all three performances here under Steuart Bedford are of the highest calibre, with superb playing from the strings of the ECO in the Frank Bridge Variations and Prelude and Fugue, and the LSO on top form in the other two works. Excellent recording too…this is a genuine Naxos bargain.

Em Marshall
MusicWeb International, September 2005

Steuart Bedford opens this Britten disc from Naxos (originally released on Collins Classics) with a corker. The Occasional Overture was composed in 1946 for the opening of the BBC Third Programme. The performance here is exemplary – precise and vivacious, gloriously snappy in the snappy parts yet lyrical in the gentler sections. The London Symphony Orchestra clearly appreciate this fun work, especially the playful ending.

The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge follows – a work written in 1937 in honour of Britten’s teacher, the outstanding British composer Frank Bridge, with a theme taken from Bridge’s Idyll Op 6 No. 2. Bedford gives another perfect performance here – sensitive yet energetic, capturing the driving rhythms extremely well. The English Chamber Orchestra give pleasingly virtuosic solos, with beautifully sheer strings and excellent intonation throughout.

It is good to hear a slightly less well-known work in the form of the Prelude and Fugue – especially given such a faultless performance! The eighteen-part fugue means an individual line for each member of the eighteen-strong orchestra. The players of the English Chamber Orchestra are therefore given a good opportunity to show off their skills, which they do with relish.

The disc concludes with the Young person’s guide to the Orchestra. Again, I couldn’t really find anything much to fault here. The work is given an aptly dignified opening, and the piece has real pizzazz. The woodwind could possibly be a little lighter – they are just slightly earth-bound in places, although the flutes in Variation A (“The flutes”) are suitably airy, dizzy, fluffy and rushing. The percussion is delightfully enthusiastic, the brass is spectacular, and the violins dance and sparkle. The individual instruments are beautifully idiosyncratic, and would appear to be enjoying their time in limelight thoroughly. I wholeheartedly recommend this disc.

Kevin Sutton
MusicWeb International, August 2005

"Naxos continue to plumb the rich catalogue of the now sadly defunct Collins Classics label. Here’s another release from the ambitious Britten Recording Project that was undertaken by Steuart Bedford, a musician more closely associated with this composer than perhaps any other. His devotion to Britten’s work and his personal relationship with the composer has put him at the forefront as an interpreter, a position that is difficult to maintain given that Britten himself recorded nearly all of his own music.

This orchestral program is full of shining moments, beginning with the Occasional Overture, composed in 1946 for the debut of the BBC’s Third Program. This is a lively piece, full of charm and melody while at the same time showing off some biting dissonances and playful good humor. It is as if the composer tried in seven and a half minutes to give a preview of all the varieties of great music that would be played on the new radio channel. Bedford leads the LSO in a sprightly engaging performance, full of wit and grace.

The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge is the work which first brought major attention to Britten as a composer. A tribute to his teacher, he casts each variation as a memento to a specific quality in the elder composer’s personality. Britten also shows just how well he knew the art of music by skillfully imitating the styles of a number of fine composers, past and present. Included in the roster are such divergent lights as Rossini and Ravel. The English Chamber Orchestra plays with aplomb, and Bedford captures the various facets of character so carefully worked into the score. One might ask for a bit more tidiness from the strings in the Rossini-esque variation, as the ornamental figures tend to come off a bit blurry. That is but a small complaint though as this reading is on the whole completely satisfying.

The Prelude and Fugue was composed for the Boyd Neel Orchestra in celebration of its tenth anniversary. In the fugue, each member of the orchestra was provided with his own part. This is a fairly serious work, and it took an extra listen or two for me, at least, to appreciate it fully. But there is no doubting the craft and skill of the composer, and the performance is above reproach.

Lastly, we hear the ubiquitous Young Person’s Guide originally written with narration for an educational project of the Crown Film Unit. If there is an overplayed work by Britten, this is it; nonetheless, I find that I never tire of all of its wonderful, intricate and clever devices. In particular Britten makes wonderful use of the percussion section, with one variation dedicated solely to instruments you bang on. Bedford leads a spirited, vibrant performance.

This disc would make a great jumping off point for listeners new to Britten’s music. For us seasoned veterans, it is a fine revisit to some old favorites. Very highly recommended indeed."

Deirdre Donahue
USA Today, July 2005

Classical music is a great pleasure, and there could not be a finer introduction to the subject than The Story of Classical Music, written by Darren Henley and read by Marin Alsop . . . Alsop proves an appealing narrator in this Naxos Junior CD, employing a light, friendly tone. Though the program is geared toward older kids, anyone wishing to learn more about classical music would gain from listening . . . Even the most tuned-out teenagers might actually put down their iPods for a listen.

Joseph McLellan
The Washington Post, July 2005

There was a time, not too long ago, when some of us thought that digital stereo -- the compact disc -- was the ultimate medium for recorded music. It was the final stage in a long history of recording technology, dating back through more than a century of improvements that included scratchy 78-rpm shellac discs. We were wrong. The CD has now had its memory vastly enhanced by DVD technology, which gives it a visual dimension, and super-audio -- SACD -- which offers four or five channels of high-definition digital sound. Suddenly, a nearly forgotten episode in recording history has returned. In the 1970s, major record labels began recording their product in four channels and launched a campaign to sell quadraphonic sound to consumers. But the analog playback technology then available to music lovers fell short of the potential in the master recordings, quadraphonic sound was abandoned and hundreds of programs recorded in four channels were released in two. Still, the four-channel masters survived, and now, with the arrival of SACD for home systems, their time has come. One company, PentaTone, founded in the Netherlands in 2001, has been right on top of this development, while the traditional major labels have been too busy lamenting their dwindling sales to take much advantage of the opportunity. PentaTone's managing director, Giel Bessels, said in a recent interview with Fanfare magazine that in 2002 the label's founders "became convinced that surround sound would take over from stereo in the same way as stereo had replaced mono over time." PentaTone has bet heavily on that theory and is in a position to win big. It has come into the American market with a brilliant catalogue of four- and five-channel recordings, some newly made but many of the best digitally remastered from Philips recordings that were issued in stereo and won glowing reviews. I have sampled some of these: Handel's 16 Organ Concertos complete on four discs with Daniel Chorzempa as soloist, Schumann's "Frauenliebe und Leben" sung by Elly Ameling, and Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" and other orchestral works conducted by Paavo Jarvi. These were selected not only for their outstanding performances but for their varied sound perspectives. In every case the surround sound gave the performers a striking presence; it sounds like the standard of the future. Meanwhile, SACDs also play well in old-fashioned stereo, so listeners not yet wired for surround sound can collect them looking forward to an eventual equipment upgrade.

Steuart Bedford, July 2005

There's really no more that need be said: this is Britten at his best, in every respect, and a first-rate bargain to boot.

David Hurwitz

These performances of the Frank Bridge Variations and the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra by Steuart Bedford (taken from the old Collins Classics catalog) stand among the very few that compare to the composer's own classic Decca recordings, and they feature better sonics. In the Variations, Bedford finds the right balance between accuracy and emotion, delivering (for example) an aptly loony Aria Italiana, a gracious Wiener Walzer, and a grim Funeral March while keeping the string playing sharply focused and admirably precise. He also achieves a fine clarity of texture in the final fugue, which can come off sounding merely muddy in less capable hands.

Clarity also is a feature of The Young Person's Guide, in the sense that Bedford finds plenty of color in this delightful score and makes sure that we hear all of it. Once again the concluding fugue is outstanding, as physically exciting as any on disc, but the individual contributions of the various LSO soloists and sections are also excellent (especially the brass). Both the Occasional Overture and the Prelude and Fugue for 18-part String Orchestra come off equally well and make an excellent bonus. There's really no more that need be said: this is Britten at his best, in every respect, and a first-rate bargain to boot.

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