BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Violin Concerto, Op. 15; Double Concerto in B Minor; Lachrymae – Anthony Marwood, violin/ Lawrence Power, viola/ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Ilan Volkov – Hyperion CDA67801, 64:18 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) *****:
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was a naturally gifted composer, conductor and impresario. This Hyperion release pulls together three of Britten’s works which represent three periods of his compositional life, in performances which are second to none.
Britten composed his only violin concerto in 1938-9. He then revised it in 1950, 1958, and finally in 1965. His constant tinkering with the score had to do with his dissatisfaction with changes to the solo part of the score suggested by the original violin soloist Antonio Brosa, a friend of Britten’s teacher composer Frank Bridge.
The concerto was premiered in March, 1940, with Antonio Brosa, violin and the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York under John Barbirolli. There, it gained some critical acclaim and audiences were pleased.
The premiere in London in April, 1941, with violinist Thomas Matthews and the London Philharmonic under Basil Cameron was not so well received. The Times said that some of the way was heavy going. They wrote, “Our own feeling was one of disappointment that so little is achieved from so large a display of ingenious effort.” The Liverpool Daily Post noted that it may be ‘really too clever’ but had ‘moments of tone-poetry.’
Some 70 years on, how does it sound? After the three revisions, it sounds very like some of the best Britten available. The orchestration is typically flamboyant and brilliant. The musical ideas are forever flourishing. For comparison sake, if you like the Sinfonia da Requiem or Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia, you should like this concerto. The third movement of the violin concerto is a passacaglia, a form which Britten used again and again.
The Double Concerto for violin, viola and orchestra (1932) was written when Britten was still a student at RCM. He left it unfinished. It was saved and had its first performance in 1997. In that premiere and in this recording it was completed by Colin Matthews. It is better than a student work, but Britten had not found his unique ‘voice’ yet.
The mysterious sounding Lachrymae was written for violin and piano in 1950 and orchestrated in 1976. Its subtitle is “Reflections on a song by Dowland for viola and orchestra, Op. 48a.” The viola was Britten’s instrument (since childhood).
This composition is a long series of variations on John Dowland’s song “If my complaints could passions move” (from the First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597). In the middle of the work, he refers to Dowland’s “Flow my tears” (from
the Second Booke, 1600). This is more mature Britten with complex harmonies. The theme and variations are in reverse, a device Britten used again several times.
The performances here are as good as you get. The soloists are technically beyond reproach. Conductor Volkov knows how to get the best out of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Hyperion has come up again with superlative sound. For those who follow such things, the recording producer was Andrew Keener and the recording engineer was Simon Eadon, two of the best around these days. Notes in the booklet are in English, French and German.
Live premiere recording of Bruckner’s 1881-1884 Urtext Edition, 7th Symphony