Brilliant Britten and resplendent Ravel with the Cleveland Orchestra

The Cleveland Orchestra and Associate Condutor Vinay Parameswaran recording Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge at Severance Hall. © Roger Mastroianni / Courtesy of the Cleveland Orchestra

Sometimes great musical works are lured into existence by series of coincidences. The young Benjamin Britten’s masterstroke, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 for string orchestra came into being within one month (or so) in the summer of 1937 as a commission from conductor Boyd Neel.

Neel and his orchestra, in turn, had been invited to appear at the 1937 Salzburg Festival to perform three works, which were to include a world premiere by a British composer. Coincidentally, Neel had been the conductor for the recording sessions of Britten’s film score Love from a Stranger (1936) recently, and asked the composer if he could fulfil the commission in relatively short time. Britten accepted the commission and eventually came up with a twenty-five-minute score of dazzling imagination.

As a homage to his most influential composition teacher, Britten crafted a brilliant series of variations based on a theme from the second movement of Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet, Op. 6 (1906). Out of the original theme, Britten draws ten variations, each designed to cherish a special quality in Bridge’s personality.

The wondrous score appears as the main piece of the latest episode in The Cleveland Orchestra’s In Focus series, titled Style & Craft under the baton of Associate Conductor Vinay Parameswaran. Together they present their online audiences with an invigorating performance; a case in point of inspiration and commitment.

The score opens with and orchestral introduction of pizzicato chords and scalar passages, paving the way for the first entry of Bridge’s sublime theme. The music flows into the first variation, a grippingly focused and intensely meditative Adagio. A swift change in mood and texture ensues, as the string ensemble embarks on a steadfast March.

Another contrasting scene change occurs with the onset of the delicateRomance, which, in its turn, is followed by the splendid Aria italiana with its imitations of guitar accompaniment and soaring melodic lines. Two tricksters numbers are up next, as Britten provides his listeners with cheeky takes on baroque idioms in the Bourrée classique and a teasing homage to Wiener Walzer, in the guise of a splendid parody.

Rapid musical lines, embellished with tremolo passages, are at the core of the dexterous Moto perpetuo, whereas the quasi-cinematic Funeral March manifests itself in slow, dark-hued gestures.

Perhaps the most striking of Britten’s variations, Chant, assumes the shape and hue of an incantation. It’s sparse, translucent textures cast a terrific spell upon the listener, resulting in a ravishingly otherworldly experience. Out of its magic, the ingenious Fugue appears. After some spirited counterpoint, a reflective Finale ensues, with its gorgeously beautiful final presentation of Bridge’s theme. With sublime orchestral gestures , the music is brought to its radiant close.

A fine performance from the Cleveland Orchestra strings and Parameswaran, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge is clad in vivid musical imagery at Severance Hall. The variations are splendidly characterised, giving rise to an extraordinary series of narratives in sound. The unique combination of transparency and colour of the Cleveland strings serves Britten’s score admirably well, resulting in wondrous sonorities.

Frank Rosenwein and Carolyn Warner performing the Ravel Sonatine. © Roger Mastroianni / Courtesy of the Cleveland Orchestra

Speaking of coincidences, the genesis of Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine for piano (1903-05) is also a fascinatingly chequered affair. The opening Modéré was initially written for a competition sponsored by the Weekly Critical Review, calling for a first movement for a piano sonata in F sharp minor, ”not to exceed 75 bars in length”. However, the competition, with Ravel its only entrant was abruptly cancelled, as the journal was facing financial difficulties and needed to withdraw its 100-franc prize. It should also be noted, that Ravel’s movement exceeded the 75-bar limit.

With the competition gone, Ravel nevertheless kept on working with his score, which was eventually expanded into a ten-minute, three-movement work, with the addition of the central Mouvement de menuet and the concluding Animé.

The completed Sonatine is a small gem. It’s three short tableaux present us with the most alluring soundscapes of lasting enchantment. In 2001, David Walter arranged Ravel’s original for oboe and piano, the version performed by the Cleveland Orchestra Principal Oboe Franz Rosenwein with Carolyn Gadiel Warner, the pianist and violinist of the orchestra.

Walter’s arrangement is a lovely one. In its duo guise, the Sonatine presents itself in whole new colours; sublime, yet ever vibrant. The oboe part has an idiomatic appeal, and the dialogue between the two players, especially such wonderful ones as Rosenvein and Warner, is tremendously rewarding in itself.

The opening modéré comes off as a resplendent daydream, whereas the Mouvement de menuet is rooted in graceful dance figures, with its intense undercurrents surfacing en passant. In the closing toccata, virtuosity and lyricism are fused together marvellously, resulting in a vividly picturesque performance.

A delightful pairing altogether, the pieces by Ravel and Britten, although somewhat different in style and conception, seem to emerge from a shared universe, one rooted in vivid musical imagery. The very idea of juxtaposing chamber music and orchestral performances together once again proves its worth with these inspiring performances.

The Cleveland Orchestra

Vinay Parameswaran, conductor

Franz Rosenwein, oboe

Carolyn Gadiel Warner, piano

Maurice Ravel: Sonatine (1903-05/2001) for oboe and piano (arranged by David Walter)

Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 (1937) for string orchestra

Filmed at Severance Hall, Cleveland on 9 March and 8-9 April 2021

First released on Adella Live on Thursday 6 May 2021

© Jari Kallio

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