Hyperion Records

Violin Concerto, Op 15
1938/9; revised 1950, 1958 and 1965; composed for Antonio Brosa who gave the first performance at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli in 28 March 1940; dedicated to Henry Boys

'Britten: Violin Concerto, Double Concerto & Lachrymae' (CDA67801)
Britten: Violin Concerto, Double Concerto & Lachrymae
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Movement 1: Moderato con moto
Movement 2: Vivace – Cadenza –
Movement 3: Passacaglia: Andante lento (un poco meno mosso)

Violin Concerto, Op 15
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.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2012

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