Hyperion Records

Diversions, Op 21
July to October 1940; for piano (left hand) and orchestra; commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein who gave the first performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy on 16 January 1942

'Britten: Piano Concerto' (CDA67625)
Britten: Piano Concerto
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Movement 01: Theme: Maestoso
Movement 02: Variation I. Recitative: L'istesso tempo (Maestoso)
Movement 03: Variation II. Romance: Allegretto mosso
Movement 04: Variation III. March: Allegro con brio
Movement 05: Variation IV. Arabesque: Allegretto
Movement 06: Variation V. Chant: Andante solennemente
Movement 07: Variation VI. Nocturne: Andante piacevole
Movement 08: Variation VII. Badinerie: Grave – Vivacissimo
Movement 09: Variation VIII. Burlesque: Molto moderato
Movement 10: Variation IXa. Toccata I: Allegro
Movement 11: Variation IXb. Toccata II – Cadenza: L'istesso tempo
Movement 12: Variation X: Adagio
Movement 13: Finale. Tarantella: Presto con fuoco

Diversions, Op 21
Britten’s last concerto-like work for piano is the piece he eventually entitled Diversions Op 21. The repertoire of left-hand piano concertos in the twentieth century came about through the courage of one determined Viennese musician, Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, who had been a pupil of Leschetizky. Whilst on active service at the Russian front during World War I, Wittgenstein had lost his right arm. Taken prisoner by the Russians, his condition caused him to be repatriated in 1916, and, back in Austria, he developed his left-hand technique to a very high standard, to the point where he commissioned a Concerto for left hand alone from the blind composer Josef Labor. The success of this work led to three groups of similar commissions from other composers. The first group, commissioned in the 1920s, included Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Richard Strauss, Bohuslav Martinu and Franz Schmidt (Strauss and Schmidt each wrote two concertos for Wittgenstein). The second group, commissioned in 1930, included Ravel and Prokofiev, both of whose concertos were completed in 1931. The last group, from 1940–45 (by which time Wittgenstein had settled in the USA) included two British composers, Britten and Norman Demuth. Wittgenstein premiered all of these works, except for Martinu’s Concertino and Prokofiev’s fourth concerto—he returned the score of the latter to the composer with the comment, ‘Thank you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note and I shall not play it’.

It is clear from this that Wittgenstein adopted a somewhat imperious attitude towards the composers he commissioned. Britten had been warned in advance of the pianist’s bearing, but although discussions between the two men concerning the commission and other aspects of the work were not without friction, it is clear that apart from the financial attraction the composition of the work—once Britten had begun it in earnest, from July to October 1940—came to exert considerable fascination and interest for him. He explained this in a foreword to the publication of a facsimile score in America in 1941, pointing out the attractions of solving the ‘problems involved in writing a work for this particular medium’. Britten’s solutions are many and varied, and cover the entire gamut of keyboard writing, ‘emphasizing’, as he said, ‘the single-line approach’. In this he had more in common with Prokofiev’s approach than with Ravel’s—the Frenchman’s concerto frequently gives the aural illusion of being written for two hands.

But Britten’s work does not spare the soloist. The writing is often highly virtuosic and incredibly well laid out for the left hand, at times almost in the form of études for piano and orchestra. Britten revisits the genres of Toccata, Recitative and March from the Concerto, plus those of Adagio, Romance and Chant from the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. The close proximity of the composition of these works suggests close musical connections, and one may find a number of them—not so much self-quotation as the use of similar turns of phrase (although in the Burlesque variation Britten quotes from incidental music he had written in 1938 for the play Johnson over Jordan). But following the experience of the Violin Concerto and the Sinfonia da Requiem, Britten probes more deeply in Diversions than he did in the Concerto, most notably in the Chant and the emotionally powerful Adagio.

The premiere of Diversions took place on 16 January 1942, with Wittgenstein and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. The pianist retained exclusive performance rights for several years, but his autocratic character tended to infuriate conductors and orchestras, and the work was not taken up until the German pianist Siegfried Rapp gave several European performances in the immediate post-War years. Rapp had lost his right arm on the Russian front in World War II, and was to give the posthumous premiere of Prokofiev’s fourth concerto in September 1956 in Berlin. An unauthorized recording of one of Rapp’s performances of Britten’s Diversions had been released in 1953 in America, and although Britten had revised the work in time for Wittgenstein to give its British premiere in October 1950, with the (then) Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under Trevor Harvey, and had made further final revisions for his own first recording of the work, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with Julius Katchen as soloist in 1954, these recordings of Diversions—as with the Piano Concerto—did not lead to its entering the repertoire, as those of Britten’s contemporaneous vocal works had done. At one time, Britten’s suggested revisions of Diversions extended to the omission of up to three of the variations, but such drastic pruning has, thankfully, never been observed in performance. Seventy years or so after these works were first performed, their freshness and vitality speak with the same musical truth that Imogen Holst divined in Britten’s work, when, writing to him after attending an early performance of Peter Grimes, she said: ‘You have given it to us at the very moment when it was most needed.’ In revisiting these unjustly neglected early works, and discovering qualities that were missed or overlooked when they first appeared, we have good cause to echo her sentiments.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2008

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