Music Reviews

Even More Variations

*All albums featured in this article are now available at 20% discount. Offer ends March 31, 2023 end of day CET. Discounts are applied automatically at checkout.

It’s true! As more and more time goes by I find that it’s quite difficult to have a single “favorite” performance of a given piece of classical music. I may not want to hear anyone but Led Zeppelin doing Kashmir, or anyone but Frank Sinatra singing Laura, but I would not want to live without at least five different recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth that I enjoy equally for different reasons. 

A couple of years ago I wrote about Benjamin Britten’s Variations On A Theme of Frank Bridge the first work that brought Britten international recognition.

Benjamin Britten

“One of my favorite orchestral jewels is Benjamin Britten’s ‘Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.’ Conductor Kenneth Woods writes about the Bridge Variations, ‘It is one of the great works of the 20th Century in any genre, one of the most impressive and moving sets of variations I know of, and one of the most touching artistic homages to a mentor I can think of.’ He’s not alone in praising this work from a 24-year-old Benjamin Britten.”

When I first wrote that post, Native DSD was offering three recordings of the Frank Bridge Variations by Britten. Well, surprise! Now there are SIX! All are fine performances, beautifully captured. In addition, each album has other works which are equally well-played, but which are quite different from each other. I can’t pick one I like over the others – I really like them all. So how can I suggest just one to others? I can’t, but I can at least make you aware of them and encourage you to explore this work. So in no particular order, these are the six albums available on Native DSD which feature Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations.

This one is like visiting an old friend! The LSO String Ensemble, conducted by Roman Simovic present solid, appropriately “traditional” performances of these three English string masterpieces. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, Elgar’s beautiful Introduction and Allegro, and Britten’s Bridge Variations. Taken as a whole, it’s a wonderful introduction to the three composers.

From Norway, the excellent Ensemble Allegria performs Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations, Strauss’ Metamorphosen, and an Ensemble Allegria commission, Lars Petter Hagen’s Strauss Fragments. These are intense, committed performances of the Britten and the achingly beautiful Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss. It’s an interesting, powerful combination. 

The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra is conducted by violinist Gordan Nikolic in this grouping of Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations, Bartok’s Divertimento, And Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre. The liner notes make the point that all were written in a short period of time just before WWII and that all three composers were pacifists who were motivated to leave their homelands. I’m not sure how much that has to do with the music, but it is an interesting program with Pentatone’s usual excellent recording quality. The Bartok is an especially apt companion to the Britten. Along with the Hartmann, this album has more of a European feel.

Here’s an all-Britten album from the Amsterdam Sinfonietta led by Candida Thompson bringing us two vocal works by Britten, along with the Frank Bridge Variations. Soprano Barbara Hannigan is superb in Britten’s Les Illuminations for soprano and string orchestra. Equally fine are James Gilchrist (tenor) and Jasper de Waal (horn) in Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn, and string orchestra. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta is at its best showcasing some of Benjamin Britten’s lesser-known works.

Along with the Britten Frank Bridge Variations, the excellent American chamber orchestra, A Far Cry, presents Ethan Wood’s variations on Ah vous dirais-je, Maman, Mozart’s treatment of the old French folk song. You’ll recognize the melody as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as the variations move from Mozart to modern. Wrapping up the album is Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives. Originally for piano, the version for string orchestra is very well played – and almost intoxicating!

Brilliant playing from the Trondheim Solistene showcase Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations, Stravinsky’s Appolon Musagete, and Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia. The Stravinsky has always been one of my favorites outside of Igor’s “big 3” ballets. I really like the Trondheim Solistene in everything they do. Incisive, committed performances, and thoughtful programs – exquisitely recorded. 

So in conclusion we have six different recordings of Benjamin Britten’s Variations On A Theme By Frank Bridge – a work that may not be familiar to many, but that has been lauded as one of the great works of the 20th Century for String Orchestra. I can hear differences between all of these recordings, yet I can’t bring myself to name a favorite. The one that comes to mind a bit more often is by the Trondheim Solistene. But then I’ll hear the Candida Thompson and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, or the American chamber orchestra, A Far Cry, or any of the others, and I’m at a loss to pick just one. I suggest you consider the additional works on each album. Traditional? Vocal works? Prokofiev? Bartok? Stravinsky? Strauss? Once you’ve heard the Frank Bridge Variations a few times, I think there’s a good chance it will become part of your basic library.

Written by

Bill Dodd

Bill is Senior Music Reviewer at NativeDSD. He lives in the Portland, Oregon area. He is an avid photographer too! Along with his early interest in broadcasting and high fidelity audio, he was exposed to classical music in small doses from age 5, was given piano lessons from age 9— Starting with Bach and including Gershwin. Successful morning personality in San Francisco at age 22. (true). Sang in choirs in high school and college. Although the broadcasting experience was all in popular music, his personal listening has been mostly classical his whole life—along with others including Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Joni Mitchell, The Who, and Led Zeppelin.


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