Hyperion Records

Double Concerto in B minor
9 March to 1 July 1932; edited by Colin Matthews; first performed in Aldeburgh on 15 June 1997 by Katherine Hunka and Philip Dukes with the Britten-Pears Orchestra under Kent Nagano

'Britten: Violin Concerto, Double Concerto & Lachrymae' (CDA67801)
Britten: Violin Concerto, Double Concerto & Lachrymae
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Movement 1: Allegro non troppo –
Movement 2: Rhapsody: Poco lento –
Movement 3: Allegro scherzando

Double Concerto in B minor
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’.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2012

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