Britten: Frank Bridge Variations; Bartók, Hartmann

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All the elements for a great recording are present here. Each of the three works is a masterpiece by one of the great composers of the 20th century. Each exploits the potential of a virtuoso string orchestra, and each includes brilliant solo- as well as ensemble-writing. Gordan Nikoli?, violin virtuoso and conductor, and the excellent Netherlands Chamber Orchestra are powerful interpreters of these scores, and PentaTone has delivered their performances in rich, resonant, and, where appropriate, biting surround sound. Thanks to the two-channel layer on the disc, those with conventional CD players can also find sound and performances of the highest quality.

All three composers were working under the gathering shadows of the century’s greatest catastrophe. Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), the youngest of this trio, composed his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge in 1937, in time for its performance by the Boyd Neel String Orchestra at the Salzburg Festival. As Austria had not yet fallen to the Nazis, there is no political significance to this; Bela Bartók (1881–1945) composed his Divertimento on commission from the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher in the summer of 1939. This also was free of political inspiration; yet both Britten and Bartók would soon sail to the United States, escaping a Europe suddenly torn by war. By contrast, Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905–1962) had withdrawn from the musical life of Germany after the Nazis took power in 1933. He sent his haunting Concerto funèbre for solo violin and string orchestra (1939) abroad, as a musical protest against the cynical division of Czechoslovakia accomplished in Munich, his hometown, in 1938.

Britten’s masterpiece shows amazing skill and originality in orchestration. His variations encompass several styles and periods of music, but each also is charged with original musical thought and observation—there is no mere imitation here. One becomes aware of a certain debt to Stravinsky, but perhaps most of all to Frank Bridge himself, a complex and gifted composer and teacher. Bartók’s piece is considerably more profound and complex than the name divertimento implies. The outer movements both begin in a folksy, cheerful way, but both contain more serious passages, unexpected dynamic shifts, and moments of considerable profundity. The Adagio begins in a veiled, mysterious fashion, and goes on to be an altogether serious and perhaps tragic statement. One might more properly think of this work as Bartók’s Concerto for String Orchestra. Finally, Hartmann’s work is written in (for him) a rather conservative musical language, while remaining uniquely original in its effect. The composer’s penchant for atonal or trans-tonal composition is present, if at all, in the angry third movement. But even there, firm tonal foundations are almost always evident. The brief introduction, the following Adagio, and the final Chorale/Slow March are deeply sorrowful, but also quite lovely, and the music ends with a full chord in D Major, as if to say that truth and beauty, however derailed in the turmoil of the time, would someday prevail.

Robert McColley, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: PTC5186056

  • UPC: 827949005664

  • Label: Pentatone

  • Composer: Béla Bartók, Benjamin Britten, Karl Amadeus Hartmann

  • Conductor: Gordan Nikolic

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

  • Performer: Gordan Nikolic


  1. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10

    Composer: Benjamin Britten

    Ensemble: Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

    Conductor: Gordan Nikolic

  2. Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz 113

    Composer: Béla Bartók

    Ensemble: Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

    Conductor: Gordan Nikolic

  3. Concerto funebre for Violin and Strings

    Composer: Karl Amadeus Hartmann

    Ensemble: Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

    Performer: Gordan Nikolic (Violin)

    Conductor: Gordan Nikolic