Long recognized as an outstanding chamber musician, Anthony Marwood has more recently been making waves as a concerto soloist, with two contributions to the Romantic Violin Concerto series and now a disc of Britten with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov. The youthful Violin Concerto, with its mix of anguished lyricism and changeability of mood nods to both Berg (whose own Violin Concerto had made a profound impression on Britten) and Prokofiev but the result is entirely personal.
The still earlier Double Concerto, for violin and viola, is impressive above all for its precocious confidence; written when Britten was just eighteen and still a student at the Royal College of Music, it had to wait sixty-five years before receiving its belated premiere in 1997 at the 50th Aldeburgh Festival. Anthony Marwood is joined by star violist Lawrence Power (who makes two appearances in Hyperion’s new releases this month). The viola was Britten’s own instrument and his Lachrymae, inspired by a Dowland song, brings us to the other end of his career, for though it was composed in 1950, it wasn’t orchestrated until 1976, the year of his death.
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When Benjamin Britten took up his scholarship at the Royal College of Music on 22 September 1930, not yet seventeen years of age, he had already amassed considerable experience as a youthful composer of prodigious facility. Although he officially studied composition with John Ireland at the Royal College, he found the atmosphere of the institution uncongenial and owed far more to the inspirational tutelage of Frank Bridge, with whom he had been studying privately for some three years prior to his move down to London from his native East Anglia. It was after working with Bridge, for example, that Britten composed one of the finest of his juvenile pieces, the orchestral Quatre Chansons françaises (1928), written for his parents’ twenty-seventh wedding anniversary and—like many of Britten’s pre-College compositions—not performed until after the composer’s death in 1976. The vast quantity of Britten’s teenage work, inevitably of rather uneven quality, meant he can have had few qualms about abandoning it once his mature compositional voice began to assert itself, which he felt to be the case with his Sinfonietta (1933; the only work of his to be performed at the RCM during his time as a student there), the choral variations A Boy was Born (1934), and the politically charged song cycle Our Hunting Fathers (1936).
One of the most substantial of Britten’s teenage works to have been rescued from oblivion is the Double Concerto in B minor for violin, viola and strings, which he composed between 9 March and 1 July 1932 in his penultimate year as a student at the RCM. The first movement was written in just two days, Britten’s diary entry for 10 March proudly noting: ‘I finish the first movement of my 2ble concerto in evening having written a lot.’ The following day he showed the music to Ireland, commenting in his diary that his teacher was ‘pretty pleased with my concerto so far’. On 17 March Britten reconsidered various aspects of the score: ‘I do some altering & a good deal of addition to my 1st mov. of concerto in morning.’ He was working on the slow movement between 18 and 21 March, and finished the finale on 4 May (the day he was informed he had won the unlikely sum of £13.13s from the award of the RCM’s Cobbett Prize). He then put the concerto to one side in order to devote his full attention to the composition of the Sinfonietta; the last diary entry relating to the unfinished piece comes on 1 July, when he revisited and completed the slow movement.
The Double Concerto received its long-delayed first performance on 15 June 1997 as part of the fiftieth Aldeburgh Festival, with Katherine Hunka and Philip Dukes as soloists and the Britten–Pears Orchestra under Kent Nagano (who the following year conducted the premiere recording, for Erato, with the Hallé and soloists Gidon Kremer and Yuri Bashmet). Colin Matthews, who prepared the work’s full score from Britten’s short-score draft and commented that he found the manuscript to be ‘complete in practically every detail’, felt that the most likely explanation for the composer’s sudden abandonment of the project was his growing disaffection with the performance environment at the RCM. Certainly the experience of trying to rehearse his Sinfonietta was discouraging. Britten declared to his diary on 22 September: ‘I have never heard such an appalling row!’ Exactly one week later he wrote: ‘I got to RCM at 11.0 for the most execrable rehearsal of my Sinfonietta’ (several instrumentalists had failed to show up); on 13 October he suffered ‘the most atrocious of all rehearsals of my Sinfonietta … What an institution’. The next day he reported that ‘new arrangements are made that my Sinf. should sound less like anemic cats’.
But there is also evidence that Britten was unhappy with the musical quality of the Double Concerto. His first attempt at the slow movement (18 March) is described as ‘an unsatisfactory beginning’, and three days later he lamented: ‘Spent practically whole day writing a fatuous slow movement for my concerto—only 2/3rds of it.’ By the end of the month his frustration had grown acute: ‘Write more of last mov. of Concerto in morning—I shall tear that up soon’ (29 March); and on the day he finished drafting the finale (4 May) he concluded ‘I expect I shall scrap it all’ before signing off two days later with ‘I’m putting my Concerto away for a bit’.
On 19 April 1936 Britten attended the posthumous first performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto at the International Society for Contemporary Music in Barcelona, an occasion which he found ‘shattering’. Britten was there to perform his fiendishly difficult Suite for violin and piano (Op 6) with a friend of Frank Bridge, the violinist Antonio Brosa, with whom he had already broadcast the work in the UK. Britten and Brosa kept in touch after the composer’s emigration to the USA in May 1939, by which time he had already begun to write a substantial Violin Concerto for the soloist (the composer referred to it at the time as ‘a big heavy-weight’). The concerto was completed in Quebec later that summer, and Britten prepared the piano reduction in New York (where he was to settle), continuing to work on the orchestration in September. Britten hoped a US premiere for the concerto would not only help his own reputation but also enable Brosa to gain further work in America. The composer wrote to his publisher, Ralph Hawkes, on 21 November about the work’s impending publication: ‘It seems a little risky without me having heard Toni play it to engrave it, but I have written to him, asking him to be honest and tell me what passages are ineffective and what alterations he suggests. Also I am hoping that he will finger and bow the part for the edition (“edited by Antonio Brosa”).’ Brosa travelled to New York to give the first performance, at Carnegie Hall on 28 March 1940 with the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli, having been detained on arrival at Ellis Island by immigration officials on suspicion of his being ‘a doubtful visitor’—presumably on account of his Spanish citizenship.
The Violin Concerto’s premiere was generally well received by both public and critics. Undoubtedly the piece represented a new depth of maturity in Britten’s music, most obviously in the extended Passacaglia finale (a form later to become one of the composer’s most characteristic and resourceful structures). In the New York Times, Olin Downes wrote: ‘Mr Britten has given us something that has a flavor of genuine novelty in the violin concerto form … The moods of the music traverse those of the poetical, the satirical and elegiac … The instrumentation, sometimes very simple, often very brilliant, is so expert that the violin is never covered when it is intended to show forth.’ As earlier in Britten’s career, however, some critics evidently enjoyed carping about his achievement, and this tendency was particularly noticeable when the work subsequently received its first UK performance, at London’s Queen’s Hall on 6 April 1941 (when the soloist Thomas Matthews was accompanied by the London Philharmonic under Basil Cameron). The Times, for example, declared on 7 April: ‘If the audience found some of the way heavy going they put a brave face on it and applauded with heartiness when it was over. Our own feeling was one of disappointment that so little is achieved from so large a display of ingenious effort.’ The Liverpool Daily Post wondered if the concerto was ‘really too clever’, but noted the ‘moments of genuine tone-poetry’. Britten later revised the work on several occasions—in 1950, 1958 and 1965—partly (and somewhat ironically) to remove what he felt had been Brosa’s excessive editing of the solo part, but also to amend the proportions of the finale. The score was dedicated to Britten’s friend Henry Boys, who had been his fellow student at the RCM; a capable pianist, Boys had (at the composer’s own suggestion) accompanied Brosa when he was rehearsing the work in the UK and demonstrating it to Barbirolli prior to travelling to America for the premiere.
Lachrymae, Britten’s ‘Reflections on a song of Dowland’, was composed in April 1950 for the Scottish viola player William Primrose and first performed—in its original version for viola and piano—by dedicatee and composer at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. The piano part was later arranged for small string orchestra (unusually lacking first-violin parts) in 1976 at the suggestion of Cecil Aronowitz, who performed it at the Aldeburgh Festival the following year, six months after Britten’s death. The work is a satisfying synthesis of various musical elements carrying a strong personal significance for the composer. The viola had been his own instrument since childhood and, although his recorded legacy as a violist consists of the modest contribution of a single (but crucial) note in Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note with the Zorian Quartet in 1946, he fully exploited the instrument’s capability for producing intensely mellow sonorities in both orchestral and chamber works. In casting the Lachrymae in the form of a seamlessly evolving set of variations Britten was able to draw on the vast experience he had gained with this musical structure in the 1930s and 1940s. And his decision to select John Dowland’s famous song ‘If my complaints could passions move’ (First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597) as the basis for the piece continued the celebration of English musical and literary heritage which had constituted a fundamental part of his art since his return home from America in the early 1940s. In the middle of the piece Britten alludes to another famous Dowland song, ‘Flow my tears’ (Second Booke, 1600).
Dowland’s theme has a strong rising and falling shape which makes Britten’s transformations of it readily comprehensible to the listener. Tremolo allusions to its melodic profile at the opening usher in a quiet statement of the theme in the lower strings, but the harmony remains complex and elusive until the very end of the work when, in a moment both technically adept and artistically magical, Britten’s music gradually merges into the simple but expressive harmonic idiom of Dowland’s original song. This idea of a theme and variations ‘in reverse’, as it were, was later adopted by Britten in his second set of Dowland ‘reflections’ for solo guitar, Nocturnal (composed for Julian Bream in 1963, and recorded on), and in the treatment of Russian themes in the Cello Suite No 3 (composed for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1971).
Mervyn Cooke © 2012