Movement 1: Toccata: Allegro molto e con brio
Movement 2: Waltz: Allegretto
Steven Osborne (piano), Scott Dickinson (viola), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor)
Movement 3: Impromptu: Andante lento
Movement 4: March: Allegro moderato – sempre alla marcia
The critical reception was mixed—as one might expect, for this work came as a surprise, even to Britten’s early admirers. In terms of its number of movements, its language and its relationship between solo instrument and orchestra, this concerto was quite different from previous British examples of the genre. During the previous thirty years, only the concertos by Delius (1906) and by Britten’s teacher John Ireland (1930) had shown any likelihood of entering the repertoire. Delius’s Concerto remains the only such work by a British composer to have been played twice during the same Proms season, and Ireland’s had been taken up by a number of eminent international soloists—including Artur Rubinstein and Gina Bachauer. But if the twenty-four-year-old Britten’s work had more in common with Russian or French models, it remains an astoundingly original achievement. The Queen’s Hall audience would have been intrigued—at the very least—by the fact that the work is in four movements, and perhaps more so by the fact that these movement had titles: Toccata, Waltz, Recitative and Aria, and March. Whatever this work might turn out to be, some would have thought, this is going to be a new type of piano concerto for a British composer.
The opening Toccata is dazzling in its brilliance, breathtaking in its unstoppable energy: this is music unquestionably by a young composer unafraid to declare himself, grasping his opportunity literally with both hands. This music can only make its full impact if played throughout at the very fast speed Britten demands; the 74 pages of full orchestral score of the first movement alone fly by, the texture and relationship between soloist and orchestra varying this way and that, as if created by some kind of musical magician. Only in the cadenza, where the composer seemingly delights in the keyboard itself, does the speed relax until the secondary thematic group (it is not possible here to speak of traditional first and second ‘subjects’), now combined, enters with soft strings and harp accompaniment to reveal the material in a completely new light before the coda brings the curtain down with a flourish. The quicksilver nature of this music is part of its originality: does any other piano concerto—even Ravel’s for two hands—start at such a speed, or maintain it for so long? Does any other maintain such an unremitting tempo while also unfolding a full-scale sonata structure that embraces a wealth of contrasted ideas all emanating from a single unifying cell? On another level, given the Concerto is in D major, what is the second subject group in the first movement doing in E major, the supertonic? The mixed critical reception the work received at its premiere can partly be explained by the simple fact that the audience had, quite literally, never heard anything like it before.
If the notion of ‘display’ inherent in the title Toccata may be thought somewhat ‘un-British’, what of the second movement Waltz, which looks forward to the finale of the Spring Symphony of 1948? Constant Lambert, writing a week after the premiere in The Listener, described this movement as ‘a fascinating psychological study’—probably the first time any music by a twenty-four-year-old British composer had been described in such a way. Lambert did not mention the composer whose instrumentation demonstrably hovers over the music at the close of the Waltz—Mahler—but his insight into this movement was correct (interestingly, Lambert himself conducted the premiere of Britten’s next major work, the choral-orchestral Ballad of Heroes Op 14, in April 1939).
In his review Lambert expressed reservations about the Recitative and Aria and the concluding March, reservations that Britten himself came to share (although he was to give three further performances of the original version by the end of 1938), for in 1945 he replaced the Recitative and Aria with a new Impromptu. Fears of a stylistic imbalance in such a juxtaposition are unfounded—despite such masterpieces as the Sinfonia da Requiem, the Serenade, Michelangelo Sonnets and Peter Grimes having appeared in the interim—for the variations which form the Impromptu are based on a theme from incidental music Britten wrote in 1937 for a radio drama on the subject of King Arthur. The essence of the initial musical thought that inspired this new movement is therefore contemporaneous with the original three movements. The revised version was first performed by Noel Mewton-Wood in July 1946 at the Cheltenham Festival with the London Philharmonic conducted by Britten. The original version was not heard again in Britten’s lifetime after he had played it in January 1940 in Chicago conducted by Albert Goldberg—a performance that received rather more critical acclaim than the premiere had done in the United Kingdom.
In both versions the third movement leads directly to the concluding March—an extraordinarily extrovert, even ironic (although not satirical) piece in which the semi-tonal germ of the Toccata’s opening idea is transformed into a descending major seventh. The climax of this finale is a cadenza accompanied throughout by an undeviating pulse on bass drum and cymbals—a most original touch. Further references from the Toccata in the coda of the finale enhance the inherent unity of the work.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2008