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Classical Corner Featured — 14 August 2013

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Britten, Bit by Bit

First, two stories.

Story No. 1: I was browsing (okay, lurking) on one of the audiophile chat sites last week and saw a question from someone who’d heard a Vivaldi recording he liked. It was apparently the first classical recording he’d ever really listened to, and now he wondered: What should I hear next?

Good question, right? And did he ever get answers. One well-meaning lurker recommended a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies. Just like that! Not only Beethoven and not only the symphonies, mind you, but a complete set from a particular conductor who is not yet, incidentally, a household name. Someone else recommended lists and essays compiled by one of the well-liked classical enthusiasts on the site. Two other respondents offered lists of record labels with good reputations. Short lists, incidentally, with almost no duplication between them, which I found interesting.

Nobody thought to ask our Accidental Vivaldi Fan what he had liked about those concertos. Was it the rhythms? The simple, driving, repetitive tunes? The tone color of the instruments? The overall vitality, or sweetness, or emotional communication of that music?

No, we just leapt in (me, too, I’m afraid) with our own lists. Desert Island Discs. Records 2 Die 4. Top Five, Top Ten, Top 100. I wonder what it felt like, trying to drink from that firehose.

Story No. 2: Oh, Decca, now you’ve done it. This being the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), and Decca being the label most associated with his music over the course of his lifetime, they are offering a “limited edition” of 66 CDs covering the Complete Works. It’s a monumental contribution, no doubt. There are some landmark recordings in it, some rarities, various “bonus” items, and it’s going at a bargain-basement price for big classical boxes: you can order the thing on Amazon for less than $300. Better do it now.

DeccaBrittenboxset

Wonder what the shipping weight is…

Yes, that was tinged with sarcasm, but don’t get me wrong. It is certainly a valuable collection, and I’m not knocking the labels’ latest attempts to stay afloat. The same brochure that brought news of Big Britten also bore tidings of ten new EMI Budget Boxes, a new Ring Cycle from Christian Thielemann, the “first ever complete collection of the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts” and, yes, Daniel Barenboim’s latest assault on the Beethoven symphonies. Revenue from reissues must seem especially sweet to Decca and EMI and Sony/BMG/Time Warner/Electrolux—for one thing they don’t have to pay the artists or engineers, most of whom are dead anyway. (Not Thielemann or Barenboim, of course.) And for consumers, where’s the downside in getting a staggering quantity of great music for—really—very little outlay?

Actually, there is a downside, but I’m not going to go there right now. Instead, I want to say a few useful things about a handful of other good Britten recordings. I don’t buy music by the boxload. (I’ve never met anyone who does, but maybe I hang out with the wrong crowd.) For better or worse, I taste a little here, a little there, and then sometimes a little more. I do have favorites. Also, even though I’m hard to please, I am always looking for new favorites. One at a time.

So: back to Britten. Maybe you already have that Decca set on order. Or maybe you already have everything in that Decca set somewhere on your shelves. This column may not be for you. It’s for the Accidental Britten Fan. Suppose you’ve heard something by him, and you sort of liked it. Maybe it was even The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which is a pretty good piece, and not only for Young Persons. Maybe you heard it accidentally, for example in Wes Anderson’s enchanting Moonrise Kingdom (which features a lot of other good Britten as well). And now you think you might like to hear more. Here is your guide, one record at a time.

britten_bartok_hartmann

Let’s stay with Britten’s instrumental music. He made his first big splashes as a composer with symphonic and chamber works, and, although they have received less attention in recent years, they still sound good. One of the first really good ones was his Opus 10, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Bridge was his teacher. Although some wags have suggested that Britten was satirizing various national styles, etc., with these variations, he thought of them more as a portrait of his beloved mentor, sketching in turn “his depth, energy, charm, humour, tradition, enthusiasm, vitality, sympathy, reverence.” Here is the introduction:

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And here is a little of Bridge’s “humour,” via Britten’s fourth variation, an “Aria Italiana”:

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Those are the strings of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, in an extremely well-recorded multichannel SACD from PentaTone (PTC 5186 056) that includes two other works from the late 1930s, Bartók’s Divertimento and Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre.

From hearing the introduction to those Variations, you will have gotten a good idea of young Britten’s flair for drama. He seemed to know instinctively how to set out with a bold stroke, and then do the next right thing, and the next after that, and so forth. That talent served him very well in his Opus 20, the Sinfonia da Requiem. It was commissioned in 1940 by the Japanese government, which sought to mark the 2,600th anniversary of its ruling dynasty with new music from a variety of composers. Britten accepted the commission, brokered through British diplomatic channels, without being aware that the Emperor of Japan would be the honoree.

musicforatimeofwar

In the event, the Japanese objected strenuously to the program of the Sinfonia, which employed text titles (“Lacrymosa,” “Dies irae,” “Requiem aeternam”) from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead to describe the emotional thrust of the work’s three movements. Aside from its references to Christian liturgy, the work may have offended the Japanese because of its pronounced anti-war subtext. (In 1940 Japan was at war with China but had not yet become a global belligerent by joining the Axis Powers.) As Steven Kruger points out in his imaginative notes for the Oregon Symphony’s recording,

The Sinfonia da Requiem opens with perhaps the most memorable timpani explosion in all of music: a hall-flattening bombshell of a first chord, underneath which one hears the growling of aircraft engines in the low brass. As though stunned, the orchestra takes some time to emerge from the debris. . . . As the music advances, or rather seems not to, one appears frozen in the “Phony War” of that summer, constantly alerted by trumpets to events which seem not to occur. But then of course, they do. . . .

One need not fully subscribe to Mr. Kruger’s fanciful descriptions in order to respond to Britten’s ferocity. Listen:

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The second movement echoes other sounds that seem to emanate from “the fog of war”:

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I have two good recordings of this work, and I wouldn’t want to be without either one. We have been listening to excerpts from a PentaTone release, Music for a Time of War (PTC 5186 393), with the Oregon Symphony conducted by Carlos Kalmar, produced by Blanton Alspaugh and engineered by John Newton and Jesse Lewis from live performances. I reviewed it here.

brittens_orchestra

There’s also a terrific recording from “Prof.” Johnson and Reference Recordings, Britten’s Orchestra (RR-120). Moment for moment, the Kansas City Symphony’s Sinfonia da Requiem is just as dynamic and expressive as Oregon’s, or at least close. And the lower end! Bass drum, bass fiddles, low brass to die for. North of the bass, the sound is no less stunning, even if its velvety sheen does tip a bit toward the yin side. You ought to get this if you don’t already have it. It’s worth at least two boxfuls of old EMI re-releases.

Before we head over to vocal and chamber music, let’s look at two more early orchestral works. These are the Piano Concerto (1938) and the Violin Concerto (1939). I find it puzzling that neither has become a concert staple in the years since their creation, although Sviatoslav Richter’s advocacy for the Piano Concerto in the 1960s helped a lot. In 1938, perhaps that Piano Concerto was just a little too brilliant. Listen:

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That’s brilliant pianist Howard Shelley, by the way, not Richter; details below. Early critics found it easy to dismiss this work because of its virtuosity—both in the creative and performative senses. Huh, they said. Too clever by half! Who does this young fellow think he is?

There is an ancient, Germanic prejudice against attractive surfaces: if it sounds good, it probably lacks “depth.” As the critic for the Musical Times wrote,

Mr. Britten’s cleverness, of which he has frequently been told, has got the better of him and led him into all sorts of errors, the worst of which are errors of taste. . . . Now and then real music crops up . . . but on the whole Mr. Britten is exploiting a brilliant facility that ought to be kept in subservience.

For reasons that had nothing to do with the Musical Times, Britten stepped forward a year later with a work that exhibited significantly more emotional substance and structural innovation, the Violin Concerto. It is a palpable masterpiece, the one Britten work I discovered this year to add to my personal list of the 20th century’s greatest music. (Of course I already knew several other Britten “greatests”!)

britten_concertos

The late Michael Steinberg wrote an especially eloquent and useful essay on the Violin Concerto. In it, he noted that by 1939 the Spanish Civil War was over, and that many of Britten’s friends had fought with the Republican side. Britten, himself a lifelong pacifist, had moved to the United States, feeling profoundly alienated from events and attitudes in Europe. He brought with him the unfinished score of the Violin Concerto, which he intended for eventual performance by a friend, Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa. The music is shot through with “Spanish”-sounding rhythms and modalities, major-vs.-minor chief among them. Listen to this ghostly dance theme from the first movement:

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Like Hartmann’s work, this is a concerto funèbre, a requiem for Spain under the Fascists, strongly anticipating the even bigger symphonic statement Britten would make the following year. It turns standard concerto structure—fast-slow-fast—inside out, making the first and third movements vast meditative pillars interrupted by a brief, biting scherzo that owes much to Mahler and Shostakovich. Its scoring will take your breath away. Here’s how it begins:

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I could play yet more astonishing clips from that scherzo, but you really need to experience such things in the context of the whole work, and on a good system.

After a haunting cadenza, the violinist leads us into the last movement, which turns out to be a passacaglia, i.e., a set of variations over a repeated bass figure, in the Baroque manner of Henry Purcell. Purcellian passacaglias—or chacony, as both Purcell and Britten sometimes called them—became one of Britten’s trademark formal devices. Here we encounter an early usage, and one of this composer’s finest.

Both of these concertos receive excellent performances on a new Chandos recording (CHAN 10764) featuring violinist Tasmin Little, pianist Howard Shelley, and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Edward Gardner. It bowled me over, especially Little’s work on the Violin Concerto. I cannot imagine ever hearing a better rendition. In the liner notes (which include well-written history and analysis from Mervyn Cooke), Little praises Gardner for bringing “the drive and passion to the piece that it needs,” and for his willingness “to take risks in pursuit of an electrifying performance.” It is that and more, by turns delicate, sensuous, and savagely honest. These three high-wire artists have produced an enormously satisfying record. Highly recommended.

The war years cannot have been easy for Britten. As a conscientious objector, he sat out the first part of World War II in the United States. There he continued a friendship with poet W. H. Auden, with whom he had collaborated on documentary film projects and more back in the UK.

The Auden association was one factor that led Britten to a new focus on vocal music, especially English verse settings. Another was his deepening relationship with tenor Peter Pears, who had come with him to North America and would become his lifelong companion and frequent musical collaborator. Finally, there was the experience of having left the soil on which he had been raised. Sometimes nothing makes us more aware of our truest selves than a sojourn abroad. Vacationing in California, Britten—a native of Suffolk—read an essay by E. M. Forster about Suffolk poet George Crabbe. Pears sought out a book of Crabbe’s poems and showed it to Britten. After reading “The Borough,” about a tormented Aldeburgh fisherman named Peter Grimes, “in a flash” Britten realized “two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged.”

By 1942 Britten was headed back to England on a Swedish cargo ship, the Axel Johnson. While onboard he occupied himself with A Ceremony of Carols, which remains perhaps his best known, most often performed choral work. During the voyage he also finished the Hymn to St. Cecilia, for which Auden had supplied the words. A year later, he composed a “festival cantata,” Rejoice in the Lamb, to excerpts from verse by 18th-century scholar and eccentric Christopher Smart; Auden had introduced Britten to Smart’s work earlier.

These three works form a sort of holy trinity of Britten’s sacred choral music. They will be familiar to anyone who has sung in a good choir, or conducted one, or frequented choral concerts. Such “anyones” will probably already have recordings, including Britten’s own performances or some of Robert Shaw’s meticulous renditions.

britten_english_choral_music

If you are not part of the been-there-done-that brigade, may I recommend a single choral Britten disc that you might enjoy? That would be from the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Christopher Robinson (Naxos 8.554791). It includes Rejoice in the Lamb, Hymn to St. Cecilia, two Te Deums, the Missa brevis Op. 62, and a marvelous early work, Hymn to the Virgin. Here’s what I like about this recording: it is done by a traditional English “cathedral” choir, men and boys, resonant chapel space, organ, the whole package. Here’s what I also like: this group ignores the annoying parts of that tradition, like stodgy tempos, muddy textures, poor choral ensemble, hooting sopranos, and all-purpose dignified restraint. No: the St. John’s tradition calls for warm, vibrantly expressive interpretation, and that is what you get here.

This is especially important with Britten’s choral music, because it occupies a problematic position in relationship to the English cathedral tradition. No one could possibly mistake Auden’s poetry in the Hymn to St. Cecilia for a conventional liturgical text:

In a garden shady this holy lady
With rev’rent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Pour’d forth her song in perfect calm: . . .
Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea; . . .

Auden may sound superficially clever, but he is getting at some deep stuff here, including the relationship between art and life, and between artists and their followers, while also delving obliquely into aspects of Britten’s personal torments (he knew them well). Still, I don’t think anyone seeks out this Hymn because of Auden’s text. Here’s why choirs keep singing it:

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The same principle applies to Christopher Smart. His words work well in the context Britten fashioned for them but may otherwise confuse the reader—Smart was imprisoned for incurable “madness” (also possibly for debts), which partly explains why he wrote verses about his cat Jeoffry, “the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.” But wait until you hear Rejoice in the Lamb, which presents choice excerpts from Smart within the structure of a Purcell verse anthem. It’s exalted, and exalting.

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For the instruments are by their rhimes.
For the Shawm rhimes are lawn fawn moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth suit mute and the like. . . .
For the TRUMPET of God is a blessed intelligence and so are all the instruments in HEAV’N.
For GOD the father Almighty plays upon the HARP of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases and the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.
Hallelujah from the heart of God . . .

Britten_blake_songs

We must wrap things up, even though I wanted to say more about Britten’s song settings. Short version: if you have never heard any Britten songs in your life, try starting with Songs & Proverbs of William Blake (Hyperion CDA67778). This cycle was written for the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and I recommend this recording, which includes other songs by Britten, because of sterling performances by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake, plus its excellent sound quality. In one sense the music is atypical, in that much of it wasn’t written for Peter Pears. All the more reason to recommend it, since not everyone likes Pears’ voice at first. So why not start out with Mr. Finley, one of the great baritones of our day? Here is a folk-song setting, “Bird-Scarer’s Song,” that ends this talk on a lighter note:

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Now we’re well and truly out of space. We didn’t get to chamber music, or to the fruits of Britten’s late-in-life work with the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, or to opera—opera, for Pete’s and Ben’s sake. Thus, I’m going to break with my own traditions, and offer Britten Part Two later this month. See you then.

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About Author

Lawrence Schenbeck

Lawrence Schenbeck lives in Atlanta Georgia, is into high-end and has a doctorate in music performance and literature. "I have spent most of my grownup years either teaching, conducting, or writing about music. A lot of that writing was directed at other professionals, but some was meant for civilians. I always tried not to sound pompous (that was hard) and not to condescend to my readers. Back in the days when I gave pre-concert lectures for the Atlanta Symphony, I would invariably meet audience members whose knowledge of concert music far exceeded mine in certain respects. Whether you're casually exploring classical music or passionately committed to it, I hope this column will be useful."

(16) Readers Comments

  1. I must protest for forty days and forty nights! Sir you left out the best part of Moonrise Kingdom. How could you leave out Britten’s Noye’s Fludde? It is absolutely insane music and I love it.

    • I loved the way “Noye’s Fludde” was used in the movie. It hits all the right notes, musically and dramatically. I just didn’t want my little essay to turn into a review of “Moonrise Kingdom” — for that you have the New Yorker link. Thanks for responding!

  2. Yes, I was not being serious. Your presentation on Britten is excellent and thorough.

  3. Terry, thank you! This was just round 1, there really will be another go at Britten in a couple of weeks. And you have inspired me to work in the works he wrote for children/community/pageant functions, like “Noye’s Fludde” and “Curlew River.” I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the operas yet, though. I’m very conscious of the fact that seasoned folks and newbies alike peruse these columns. So there’ll probably be an overview that will leave some really knowledgeable readers feeling cheated.

    BTW I grew up with the very same (Bernstein) recording of YPGTTO that Anderson uses in “Moonrise Kingdom” which may also have something to do with my mentioning it.

    • I am of the opinion that you cannot have too many versions of YPGTTO. I have versions by Bernstein, Stern, and Jarvi. Each brings something to the table. Moonrise Kingdom prompted me to purchase Richard Hickox’s Noye’s Fludde, op. 59.

      Now you make me want to take a closer listen to the PentaTone Frank Bridge. I have it but only listened to it once. We all need motivation from time to time.

  4. There’s a promotional video for the Decca Britten Complete set that begins — I think — with the “Aria Italiana” cue that I used in this column, and then segues into an instantly recognizable bit from the “Four Sea Interludes” from Grimes. And so they go from the extremely clever 24-year-old who wrote the Frank Bridge Variations to the 32-year-old GENIUS who composed Peter Grimes. Works very nicely for the promo video, but it also forcibly reminds us — harrumph — of the giant leaps in style and maturity that Britten managed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Not to take anything away from the Bridge Variations — and especially Gordon Nikolic and the NCO who do such an electric job with them — but they do not reveal the Full Benjamin, exactly. Still fun!

    I really respected Richard Hickox’s work, and so I will definitely consider adding Noye’s Fludde to my collection. I am curious what you think about Stern’s “Four Sea Interludes” (this is on the same disc with YPGTTO, right?).

    • Peter Grimes

      I have just finished listening to all three of my Peter Grimes. I have Michael Stern, Paavo Jarvi, and Edward Gardiner. The Gardiner is a 96 kHz/24-bit FLAC file. Both the Stern and the Jarvi are SACDs. I will limit my comparison to the SACDs. This is a fairly good shoot-out: Cincinnati versus Kansas City and the old Telarc versus References Recordings (RR). Borrowing from you I will say the Stern is the Yin and the Jarvi is the Yang.

      The Stern was a pivotal purchase for me. I had first bought the CD version and later bought the SACD version. At the time RR was my favorite label and my reasoning was that if they were going to start making SACDs, I am going to get in line and join the parade. They made a big deal on their Website about winning a Grammy for this SACD. Almost simultaneously I started buying SACDs and they stopped making SACDs. But as H.R. Haldeman said, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is hard to get it back in.” So hello BIS, PentaTone, Channel Classics etc… But I digress.

      There is not doubt the Stern is smoother. It is not quite a fair comparison because Stern wisely inserted the Passacaglia between the 3rd and 4th Interludes. The Passacaglia segues nicely with the Storm. I fully agree with everything you said about the lower end: It is breathtaking. Jarvi’s music on his SACD seems to have a little more bite.(Yang). I will go beyond what you asked and add that I prefer Jarvi’s TYPGTTO to Stern’s. But that could change.

  5. Very, very interesting. I especially appreciating hearing good things about Gardner’s work. Ever since I started collecting his Lutoslawski series on Chandos SACDs, I have been a fan. My only disappointment in the Britten concerto disc is that they didn’t bring it out on SACD, so I hope there is a high-rez download available soon — maybe there is already, and I just didn’t know where to look. (I’m still a beginner at downloading.)

    I have been watching a new Blu-ray production of Peter Grimes from La Scala, in an “interesting” but not totally bizarre re-staging, and I was struck by how dynamic, pictorial, and powerful the “Sea Interludes” and “Passacaglia” can be within the context of the opera. By contrast, the Stern reading strikes me as slightly inert, which may not be fair. Checking the Schenbeck Archives, I see that I have two other recordings of the Interludes, one by Slatkin with the Passacaglia, and one by Bernstein (“The Final Concert,” DG) without. So, time to compare those with Stern. You can probably guess which one my money’s on.

    • I purchased my Benjamin Britten – Cello Symphony / Symphonic Suite From Gloriana/ Four Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’ by Gardiner from eclassical. As I said before it is a 96/24 FLAC file. One of my favorite downloads is from Channel Classics. It is of the Shostakovich/Britten cello concertos performed by Peter Wispelway. I have the DSD version which I listen to at 352.8/32 through my DAC. Both concertos rock.

      I also have four of the Chandos’ Witold Lutoslawskis. Three are SACDs and the other one (Mala Suite, Concerto For Orchestra, & Grave) is a 48/24 FLAC file that I purchased from TheClassicalShop. I have become a big fan of Lutoslawski in the past few years.

  6. Correction:

    The (Mala Suite, Concerto For Orchestra, & Grave) should have been (Mala Suite, Concerto For Cello and Orchestra, & Grave). Not sure if the Cello is important or not. :)

  7. Okay, gotta check those out!

    Wispelwey and pianist Dejan Lazic recorded the Britten Cello Sonata in 2003, and it’s on a CC disc w/ sonatas by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. I have only heard the CC sampler from that year, which included a cut from the Shostakovich, I think. Very razor-sharp performance, with the mics seemingly about six inches from the cellist and maybe a foot from the piano! I see that various downloads of that are available from CC as well. Might be worth exploring if you like those artists. I am listening to a Hyperion disc that got a Gramophone Award nomination — very fine performances too, but I wish the soundstage were a bit bigger.

  8. Wispelwey and pianist Dejan Lazic

    Been there and done that one too. I downloaded it a few months ago as a DSD and I think the sound is excellent also. It is just the Shostakovich/Britten Cello concertos are among my favorite downloads.

  9. At the risk of going off topic, have you heard the Channel Classic Paolo Giacometti – Erard / Steinway Compared? Giacometti plays the same music on two different pianos (Erard & Steinway) in two different venues. I commented on the two different venues to David Hurwitz of Classics Today and he forwarded my email to C. Jared Sacks. Here is Jared’s response:

    Dear Terry,
    I would also have loved to have recorded the two pianos in the same space. Unfortunately the mennonite church community here in Holland was getting smaller and smaller that they could not keep up with the costs of the building anymore so that I have sold it off to the city.
    It is a monument so it is not about to become a swimming pool, for the moment it is closed for people like me who want to record there.

    Thanks for your interest in Paolo Giacometti Like you, I also prefer the Erard.

    If you like the way Jared records piano, I suggest you give this recording a try.

  10. I will definitely put it on my list. A few months ago I reviewed a similar effort by Alexei Lubimov and Alexei Zuev, playing Debussy on early-29th-c. Steinway and Bechstein pianos (ECM 2241/42). But they don’t duplicate any of the repertoire, which makes comparisons difficult. And of course they didn’t have Jared Sacks at the helm.

  11. Lawrence,,
    For me this has been an informative exchange of musical experiences. I am looking forward to your next post. Thank you.

  12. I’ve enjoyed your posts very much!

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