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English Music for Strings

This recording features three extraordinary string works, which were responsible for significantly enhancing the reputations of their composers.

Back in 1963 when the world was young and television was black and white the BBC screened a programme which included film of a little boy, dressed in old-fashioned clothes, riding a pony in magnificent hilly country. The background to that image was some glorious string music, which perfectly matched the images on the screen. The film was Ken Russell's ‘Elgar’ made for the Monitor series. The music was Elgar's ‘Introduction and Allegro’.

Ken Russell’s ‘Elgar’ was probably singlehandedly responsible for turning the public perception of Elgar from that of a jingoistic sideshow to one of the country’s greatest composers. Such is the power of television when manipulated by a master on behalf of a master.

The ‘Introduction and Allegro’ is also a very special work for the LSO and its string group. It was composed in 1905 for performance by the newly formed London Symphony Orchestra with the specific aim of showing off the players’ virtuosity. At the time the piece received mixed reviews - positive for the players and less positive for the ‘needless overcomplexity’ of the writing. It took Ken Russell and his BBC film to put the ‘Introduction and Allegro’ back where it belongs as one of the finest string pieces ever written.

Vaughan Williams’s ‘Tallis Fantasia’ was written for the 1910 Three Choirs Festival. It is widely believed to be his first indisputable masterpiece and there are even those who consider it to be his only one, although this is an extreme view. ‘Tallis’ was written after a visit to Paris where Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel. This led – unsurprisingly – to a new interest in sonority. The organ-like sonorities of Tallis come from the division of the strings into three groups of unequal strength:

1. A general choir designated as orchestra 1
2. A smaller group of 9 players separated spatially from the main orchestra
3. A string quartet

The idea may have come from the ‘Introduction and Allegro’, which Vaughan Williams would certainly have known, but the two pieces are very different in their overall effects.

In May 1937 the conductor Boyd Neel was invited to give a concert of British works at the Salzburg Festival with his string orchestra. A condition of the engagement was that a new work should be included. Neel knew that finding a composer to write a work at such short notice would be a challenge and, making a daring choice, he turned to the 24-year-old Britten, then still unknown to a wider public. Britten accepted the commission and within 10 days Neel had a draft score in his hands. Just four weeks later the ‘Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge’ was complete. This was the work that first brought Britten to international attention. The rest is history.

The LSO String Ensemble - led by the orchestra’s principal first violin Roman Simovic - gives fluent and fresh performances of these three remarkable pieces.

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