Saturday, October 15, 2011

Music for all ages

The kind of music that gets your synapses firing on all cylinders, Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra had its first concert performance on today's date in 1946. Subtitled Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell, it expands brilliantly on the Rondeau Purcell composed in 1695 for a play by Aphra Behn called Abdelazer, or The Moor's Revenge. In displaying the tone colors and capacities of the various sections of the orchestra, it is truly a tour de force. As critic Richard Freed writes, "Each of the variations reflects a different character—some tender, some slightly sardonic, some mysterious, some straightforwardly humorous, all charged with great originality and wit."

After the Abdelazer theme is played by the ensemble, each major family of instruments takes it up, from high to low: woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion.  Each variation then highlights a particular instrument in depth, and the piece is capped off by a grand fugue on the Purcell theme for the entire orchestra. Here's the opening of this spectacular piece, with Simon Rattle.