Britten Violin Concertos Orfeo

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto in D Minor Op. 15 (1939 rev. 1958)
Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in B Minor, (1932, realised by Colin Matthews)
Baiba Skride (violin), Ivan Vukčević (viola)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony orchestra/ Marin Alsop
rec. 2021/22, Radio Kulturhaus, Vienna
Orfeo C220021 [59]

Britten’s Violin Concerto took some time to get established. In Britain it was initially overshadowed by Walton’s, dating from a year earlier, and internationally, by the concertos of Berg and Bartók, also written around the same time. In fact, there is a certain affinity with Berg: Britten had hoped to study with him in Vienna, but this was blocked by Hugh Allen, the Director of the Royal College of Music where Britten was a student. Allen did not approve of the Continental modernists such as Bartók, Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School. Still, in 1936 Britten travelled to Barcelona for a contemporary music festival. There he gave the premiere of his Suite for Violin and Piano Op. 6 with the violinist Antonio Brosa. He also heard Brosa play the solo part in a performance of the Berg concerto, then a new work, which greatly impressed him. It may have been then that Britten thought of writing a concerto for Brosa. He actually completed it during his time in the U.S. A. in 1939 and Brosa was the soloist at the premiere.

Britten did not adopt Berg’s idiom, neither the serial technique nor the rich vein of romanticism which he used, but I hear an influence in the structure of Britten’s first movement. Berg begins with a soulful first theme and then develops a skittish one, both evoking the character of Manon Gropius, the girl whose death inspired the work. Britten also begins with a soulful theme and follows with a skittish one. Not so much an influence as a steal is the idea of opening with a motto theme on the timpani, which Beethoven had famously done in his violin concerto, The movement is in sonata form except that the skittish theme does not return in the recapitulation.

The second movement is a scherzo, fast and exciting, rather in the manner of Prokofiev. As it ends, the soloist launches into a cadenza which brings back the timpani theme from the opening. The finale is a Passacaglia, with the main theme entering a semitone lower each time and with its rhythm disturbed. The end is quiet and melancholy.

The Double Concerto is a work from Britten’s student years, to which he never gave the finishing touches. He was working on it at the same time as his Sinfonietta, which became his Op. 1, but for some reason he left the concerto is short score, though with indications of his intended orchestration. From this, Colin Matthews was able to complete the score, and he said that only in a few bars of the slow movement did he need to do any filling in. He should really be credited, but the booklet does not mention his contribution. The work was given its premiere in 1997, long after Britten’s death. It is in the usual three movements, and the orchestral part is for a string orchestra. The interplay between the two soloists is constant, much more so than in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 364, which Britten must have had in mind. While clearly still a student work, it is an attractive and interesting piece, with some hints of the mature composer.

I know the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride from her excellent recording of the Stravinsky and Frank Martin concertos (review) and, considering her now extensive discography, she does indeed seem to take special interest in twentieth century repertoire. Her playing in lyrical passages is luminous and glowing, but she is also fully capable of the mordant wit of the scherzo of the Violin Concerto. In the Double Concerto she is joined by the violist Ivan Vukčević, whose warm and lustrous tone complements hers. The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop offer fine and idiomatic support and the recording is up to Orfeo’s usual high standards.

There are now many recordings of the Violin Concerto to choose from, with the couplings possibly proving a decisive factor. The Double Concerto was first recorded by Gidon Kremer and Yuri Bashmet under Kent Nagano in a useful disc of early Britten (review). The most direct competition to the present disc comes from Anthony Marwood, who offers both concertos under ivan Volkov, with Laurence Power on the viola, and adds in Britten’s Lachrymae in its orchestral version as well (review), I haven’t heard that but found this version very satisfying.

Stephen Barber

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