Earlier today I sat down to listen for the first time to Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10.

Written in 1937 when the composer was 24 years old, this surprisingly mature work pays tribute to Frank Bridge, mentor to the younger composer. Scored for string orchestra, the music is playful and begs to be danced to, which it got to be after its Salzburg Festival premiere, having been choreographed most recently by Twyla Tharp and long before her by Sir Frederick Ashton.

The principal theme is subtly stated once. Each of the ten variations that follow have a character of their own, which sometimes in the style of another composer portray in musical terms an aspect of the character of Britten’s beloved teacher:  his integrity, his energy, his charm, his sense of humor, his traditional values, his enthusiasm, his vitality, his sympathy, his respectfulness, his musical skills, and, in the final fugue, the loving relationship between pupil and esteemed mentor-teacher.

Britten makes superb use of the strings, writing with amazing maturity and gleeful humor, utilizing a couple of dance forms: a tongue-in-cheek Viennese waltz and a bourrée, later contrasted with an aria, a march, and even a chant.

Lennox Berkeley composed his Serenade for Strings around the same time as Britten wrote his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The music of this brief, four movement work is essentially lyrical, elegant, quintessentially English, ending after the first three of its four movements in an elegiac Lento that signals a radical change of mood. His having resided in the Paris of the  late 1920’s inevitably must have influenced Berkeley, whose music owes much to the influence of Poulenc in its fluctuation from the giddy to the solemn in tone.

Frank Bridge’s heartfelt Lament is, as the other works in this CD are a brief and interesting composition, predating stylistically and chronologically those of the other composers featured in English Music for Strings.

Arthur Bliss wroteMusic for Strings, a colorful, vigorous composition that earned him wide recognition. At first a modernist influenced by Les Six, among others, Bliss found his place as a gifted traditionalist, one markedly different to his younger colleagues represented on this CD. He served in the Great War, wrote film music, operas, ballets, and chamber music in many of which he gave voice to the emotions elicited by his terrible experiences in the British Army. The longest of the works on this CHANDOS CD, this composition attests to the musical gifts of this unfairly underestimated artist.    

John Wilson leads the invaluable Sinfonia of London throughout the CD’s 19 tracks summoning rapturous playing from his all-string orchestral forces.

Rafael de Acha