Arcadia Lost

01/11/2012
Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare III (US)

This is an exquisitely musical and splendidly atmospheric disc, given the title Arcadia Lost, in which the SACD sonics play their part more in the sense of providing extra warmth (which they almost always do) and ambience to the proceedings. I have had occasion to praise Mark Wigglesworth previously in these pages, if only for his outstanding recording of the Mahler 10th Symphony, which I believe was only issued as a BBC Music Magazine disc, but which is my all-time favorite performance of that work. This is yet further proof that he is an exceptionally special talent.

Indeed, I would place these performances of The Lark Ascending and Flos Campi as far and away the most exquisite, deeply felt, I would even say spiritual performances of these works I’ve ever heard. Wigglesworth draws such extraordinary playing out of the Sydney Symphony that one is left speechless in trying to describe its effect. Flos Campi, in particular, has a rapt, ecstatic feeling to it that makes it sound nearly as magical as Pēteris Vasks’s Plainscapes, at least in the quiet first half, and anyone who has heard Vasks’s magnificent piece knows how special it is in capturing a real atmosphere of calm and peace.

One wonders what possessed Britten to compose a requiem symphony to “celebrate” the 2,600th anniversary of the foundation of the Japanese Imperial dynasty, but then again one wonders why the British were sucking up to the then-warlike Japanese in 1939 to begin with. Ostensibly representing his feelings of melancholy on the loss of his parents, Britten also meant for this work to express his antiwar sentiments, and so it does. The ominous opening section of the work very clearly sounds threatening and warlike with its loud, edgy brass and pounding drums, nor is the mood much lightened in the frenetic second movement, described by the composer as “a form of Dance of Death.” The music virtually collapses, leaving only a single bass to link it to the “peace and quiet rejoicing” of the last movement. Britten’s original score was rejected by the British committee that had commissioned it, since it did not “express felicitations for the anniversary,” but Britten had already spent the money and was not about to give them a refund. A revised version of the symphony was premiered in Carnegie Hall by John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic in 1941, but this is a performance of the original score that turned up back in the 1980s. There are small differences between it and the finished version, not really strong enough to comment on—certainly, the liner notes do not, nor do they say if this is the first recording of this edition, but they do mention that Simon Rattle premiered this edition in 1988.

In On Wenlock Edge, Steve Davislim’s tenor voice is unusually light in both texture and volume, even lighter than Peter Pears’s, but his diction is flawless and his interpretation surprisingly fresh, almost lilting, especially in the short fourth song, “Oh, When I Was in Love With You.”

A review of this disc by Andrew Clements in The Guardian claims that these are live recordings, but the booklet only indicates that The Lark Ascending was recorded October 1–3, 2009, at the Sydney Opera House while the other pieces were recorded on February 28, 2010, in the Iawki Auditorium . . .