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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Piano Concerto, Op.13 (1938, revised 1945) [33:10]
Original version of the third movement from Piano Concerto, Op. 13 (1938) [09:33]
Violin Concerto, Op. 15 (1938/39, revised 1958) [33:19]
Howard Shelley (piano); Tasmin Little (violin)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 10-11, 13 September 2012, MediaCity UK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN 10764 [76:30]

It cannot have escaped the notice of many music-lovers that the year 2013 is the centenary of Benjamin Britten. The Britten-Pears Foundation proclaim on their website that, “The centenary of Benjamin Britten will be the most widely celebrated anniversary of a British composer ever seen”. We are now in April and there have certainly been some splendid releases and now this mouth-watering Chandos issue appears. I am delighted to report that this new disc easily met my high expectations.
 
For many years I have admired Britten’s Piano Concerto. It’s an exceptionally fine four movement score that he wrote shortly after completing the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Fascinating and enthralling it may be but I’m not sure I would go as far as soloist Howard Shelley who describes it as “one of the greatest piano concertos of the twentieth century”. Nevertheless the relative disregard of this work is quite remarkable.
 
In 1938 Britten was in his mid-twenties when he wrote the Piano Concerto, dedicating it to his friend and fellow composer Lennox Berkeley. Britten was at the piano for its introduction that same year with Sir Henry Wood conducting at Queen’s Hall, London as part of a BBC Proms. Dissatisfied with the third movement Recitative and Aria Britten replaced it in 1945 with the Impromptu. This Chandos release includes an account of the original third movement.
 
The percussive and heavy opening movement is a precocious and exuberant Toccata. It charges about with boundless nervous energy. Shelley finds an elusive quality to the satirical and at times rather ambiguous Waltz - a curious movement in which I sense a hidden programme. Underneath the generally calm exterior of the Impromptu there is a sinuous strength to the confident almost arrogant writing. In the Finale: March, with its tongue-in-cheek, martial character, I’m never sure which direction the music is taking. Those reserves of pent-up energy leave an unsettling sense of anticipation for something ominous to happen. Shelley’s fine playing of the Recitative and Aria of the discarded original version of the third movement is highly engaging. Underneath the genial upbeat one can feel threatening storm clouds are gathering.
 
In the Piano Concerto I remain especially fond of the account from the composer’s friend, the soloist Sviatoslav Richter with the English Chamber Orchestra and Britten himself conducting. Brilliantly played yet with moments of great sensitivity I have this 1970 Snape Maltings recording on Decca London 417 308-2. The coupling is a stimulating performance of the Violin Concerto played by Mark Lubotsky with the same forces. I have been most content to stay with my Richter/Britten recording although I have heard positive things about the live account from Leif Ove Andsnes with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Järvi on EMI Classics 5 56760 2.
 
My admiration for the Violin Concerto, Op. 15, a twentieth century masterwork of the genre goes back nearly thirty years. I first heard it in 1985 at a marvellous concert at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester with the great Ida Haendel and the BBC Philharmonic. It was completed in 1939 largely in Canada during Britten’s trip with Peter Pears to North America. It was Sir John Barbirolli who conducted the première given at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1940 with soloist Antonio Brosa and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Dissatisfied with some of the minor technical aspects and with Brosa’s editing, Britten undertook revisions in 1950, 1954 and 1965. Given its elevated quality it’s a terribly neglected score in the concert hall that deserves to become a repertoire staple. Although there are a number of fine recordings I was surprised to hear soloist Janine Jansen say in an interview that when she performed it in 2009 in Berlin with the Berliner Philharmoniker that the orchestra hadn’t played it for fifty years. I interviewed Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2012 and was delighted to hear her state that she was, “currently starting the Walton concerto and I’m very interested in the Britten too.” Fingers crossed that Mutter will be adding the Britten work to her repertoire. Tasmin Little the soloist on this Chandos release first performed the score in 1992 stating how she was influenced by the celebrated 1977 recording made by Ida Haendel on EMI. Here Little is using her divine sounding 1757 Italian Guadagnini instrument.
 
The gloriously brooding melody of the opening movement has a rather sinister feel. Underlying in the writing is that particular sense of emotional struggle I often find in Britten’s music. Little is a fine guide here with typically splendid playing. However the Haendel/Berglund interpretation is peerless. Virile playing from Little in the strong and dynamic second movement Vivace climaxes in an immense tension-filled stormy outburst that feels like a harbinger of impending danger. I love the way that Little provides an uncomfortably icy chill to the extended cadenza. In truth though I have never heard playing of the remarkable intensity that Jansen/Järvi bring to this movement. Britten fills the Finale with writing of dark passion - a cry of both physical and emotional anguish. The alert and alive Little plays out of her skin with results that speak of searing concentration.
 
I have a number of examples of the Britten Violin Concerto although I keep coming back to the same three simply because I find them deeply satisfying. Firstly there’s Ida Haendel from 1977 at Southampton Guild Hall. The playing here is such emotional intensity and technical proficiency. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is under Paavo Berglund. Stunningly played and recorded I have this account coupled with Haendel’s equally fine recording of the Walton Violin Concerto on EMI Classics 7 64202 2. I also greatly enjoy the glorious account from Janine Jansen played with impressive freshness and a genuine sense of spontaneity. Jansen recorded the work with the LSO under Paavo Järvi in 2009 at the Abbey Road Studios London on Decca 478 1530 (c/w Beethoven Violin Concerto). In addition Mark Lubotsky’s 1970 Snape Maltings account with the same forces is intensely satisfying. The coupling of Richter’s 1970 recording of the Piano Concerto serves to add to the desirability of this release: Decca ‘London’ 417 308-2.
 
This is a desirable Chandos release of two marvellous Britten concertos that deserve to be far better known. The playing from soloists Shelley and Little is exemplary. They are accompanied by the outstanding BBC Philharmonic under Edward Gardner’s sensitively controlled baton. Chandos recorded these works at MediaCity UK in Salford and the resulting warm sound quality is satisfying but cannot match the wonderfully clear sonics of Haendel’s 1977 account on EMI. It was a nice bonus to have the opportunity of hearing the original third movement of the Piano Concerto. On balance, however, I would have preferred the inclusion of Britten’s Young Apollo for piano, string quartet and strings, Op. 16.
 
Michael Cookson
 




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