The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
Onyx ONYX 4238 (digital only) 17:24 mins
Benjamin Britten was flying high in 1945: after the triumph of his first opera Peter Grimes that spring and summer, he then rapidly composed his Holy Sonnets of John Donne and his String Quartet No. 2 before writing The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in December for an educational film. Its first concert performance was given by the (then) Liverpool Philharmonic under Malcolm Sargent in 1946, so it seems appropriate that Vasily Petrenko’s final recording of his 15-year stint as the RLPO’s music director should be of that same work.
It is a piece that poses conductors two challenges: how to sustain long-term momentum through so many so many short variations, and how to hit a tempo in the final fugue that builds excitement without reducing detail to a scramble. Britten’s own 1963 recording with the LSO sustains the variations with a fine swing, but pushes the fugue to its upper limit. Petrenko launches Purcell’s theme at a statelier tempo and is sometimes tempted to linger over detail in the variations, though the solo playing is often lovely. Yet his fugue is marginally faster even than Britten. Fortunately, the clarity and presence of the Philharmonic Hall recording are more than equal to the challenge.