Mozart • Britten • Mendelssohn
Despite the fact that Britten made highly acclaimed commercial recordings of Mozart’s 40th Symphony and his own Nocturne, there is undoubtedly an extra dimension of interest in watching him direct these particular works. This may seem ironic given that he was an undemonstrative conductor with a notable penchant for avoiding flamboyant gestures even at moments where the music-making is at its most intense. Yet from the very opening bars of the Mozart it’s evident that the conductor is absolutely in control, delivering wonderfully instinctive melodic phrasing, and inspiring the English Chamber Orchestra to project tremendous rhythmic exhilaration in the Finale.
The performance of the Nocturne is no less enthralling, with Peter Pears in excellent voice. Britten steers a very determined course through the work’s contrasting sections, the horn solo from Ifor James in the setting of Middleton’s ‘Midnight’s Bell’ being especially evocative.
ICA has achieved a near-miracle in managing to give these black and white BBC TV 1964 recordings such clarity. Yet the bonus transmission from a concert that took place six years later at the Snape Maltings demonstrates quite staggering advances in visual and recording technology with really vivid colours and incisive sound. It’s a particularly interesting document given that Britten never made a studio recording of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. The performance is full of musical insights, urgently expressive in the slow movement and delightfully fleet-footed in the Scherzo. The only obvious frustrations are that we don’t have the complete Symphony here and that the central movements are performed, somewhat surprisingly, in reverse order.