> Britten, Benjamin, Bruch Double Concertos[]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Double Concertos for Violin and Viola

Romantic Fantasy
Benjamin BRITTEN ed. Colin MATTHEWS

Double Concerto (1932)

Double Concerto Op.88
Benjamin Schmid (violin)
Daniel Raiskin (viola)
Berlin Symphony Orchestra/Lior Shambadal
Recorded at Jesus Christ Church, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany, 24 - 26 September 2001
ARTE NOVA 74321 89826 2 [63’59"]


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There is little connection between these three works other than the obvious use of the same string duo as soloists, and, in the case of Benjamin and Britten, the fact that the former was the piano teacher of the latter at the Royal College of Music. It’s an enterprising juxtaposition of works, none of them hard on the ear, Benjamin’s rather exotic (complete with glockenspiel in its scherzo) three-movement Romantic Fantasy having strong reminiscences of Mahler’s end-of-the-century Fourth Symphony at various points throughout. The work was intended for Tertis but he chose to retire from the concert platform just as the composition was completed, nevertheless William Primrose, with violinist Heifetz, made a more than worthy substitute on 24 May 1938 in London, where it was played for the first time. [That performance by Heifetz was issued on
CD in 1997:Heifetz Collection, vol.31 (RCA Gold Seal 09026617622).]

Britten’s concerto was sketched when he was nineteen and very uncertain of his ability, so he kept it under wraps, making his well-known Sinfonietta his Opus 1 instead. It was only in 1997 that it was first heard in public (Aldeburgh Festival) after Colin Matthews had prepared the score for publication (‘the instrumentation is so carefully indicated in the draft that what is heard is not far from being 100% Britten’). Curiously, like the Benjamin work, it too opens with horn fanfares and develops a spare orchestral fabric, typically intense melodies in the first two movements with a final splash of colour provided by an exciting Tarantella finale in full syncopated cry. It’s all rounded off by a return call from those horns.

Bruch’s work does not predate the other two by that many years, a mere twenty or so when it appeared in 1911 when he was 73, and if he had still been alive in the 1930s he would have written just the same work as his style never really developed much beyond that of the 1860s. This is not his original setting for the work, it was written for clarinet and viola, two alto instruments which he loved so much, and for his son Max Felix, a good clarinettist who later moved into the burgeoning recording industry. Bruch did however make this version for violin and viola. It’s a lovely work, tunefully restful, Romantic in the fullest sense of the word, its orchestration a thing of curiosity for as it progresses through the movements it grows from a chamber orchestra to a modest-sized symphony orchestra by adding extra woodwinds and brass. Much of the elemental Bruch is there, the unique recitativo-style, quasi-improvisatory sections from his first two violin concertos, folk music from his suites, his inevitable plagal Amen cadences and so on. In 1912 it could not, and did not, cause a stir, not like the one which Stravinsky would set in train in Paris a year later for example, but neither did it do harm. Nor does it today.

The two soloists and conductor, from Austria, Russia and Israel respectively, do all three works immense justice, together with the excellent Berlin Symphony Orchestra, by getting to the heart of the British style with no problems, if they seem more at ease in the style of the Teutonic Bruch. This is an imaginative combination of works with Benjamin’s Romantic Fantasy the discovery for this reviewer. An irritating error is the inconsistency between the CD case and the enclosed booklet; Bruch’s Double Concerto is Op.88 (as described in the booklet) whilst the case erroneously calls it Op.88a, which is his Concerto for Two Pianos.

Christopher Fifield


Arthur Benjamin is a speciality of mine and the Romantic Fantasy a particular favourite. The details supplied to Chris about the premiere are incorrect. Readers may find the following background useful:-

The Romantic Fantasy was composed in 1937. The dedicatee is Bax with whom Benjamin had some informal lessons during the early 1920s. The work took its theme from one of Bax’s early works. Benjamin conducted the first performance on 24 March 1938 as part of a Royal Philharmonic Society Concert. His soloists were Eda Kersey (who in 1943 premiered the Bax Violin Concerto at a Saint Cecilia’s Day concert) and the violist Bernard Shore. The work is in three continuous movements: Nocturne; Scherzo and Sonata.

The mood of the Romantic Fantasy is also shared by Bax’s Summer Music of 1917, (orchestrated in 1920) and, further north by Levi Madetoja’s beautiful Second Symphony (1918). The air is heavy with Delian languor, the warmth of summers ‘remembered’ rather than experienced, the buzzing of insects and the first stirrings of youthful romance and passion. The Fantasy is not wholly weighed down with this atmosphere. The dialogue between the two instruments is also briskly impassioned, at times taking wing in glittering display passages which are woven into the fabric of the piece rather than having been grafted on for the purpose of gratifying the egos of the soloists.

In 1965 RCA issued LP LSB6605 which had been recorded in 1964. This included a performance of the Romantic Fantasy by Jascha Heifetz and William Primrose. The horn soloist, Joseph Eger, is separately credited, probably because of the prominently ripe role given to the instrument. The orchestra is the RCA-Victor Orchestra conducted by Izler Solomon.. As far as I am aware it has not been reissued on CD.

Amongst the least neglected of Benjamin’s works the Fantasy has a comparatively rich performance history: BBCSO 2 January 1939; Goteborgs Orkester 30 March 1939, BBC Promenade concert 18 September 1953, Japan Philharmonic SO 18 January 1968, BBC Scottish SO 6 May 1970, Orchestra Sinfonica Colombia 21 October 1983, City of London Sinfonia 21 January 1987, BBC 25 March and 7 April 1990 and RCM conducted by John Wilson on 20 April 1995.

In the United States it has received several performances, including one given on National Public Radio, with David and Joan Korman, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra and Raymond Leppard. More recently the orchestra repeated the work in a concert conducted by Leonard Slatkin on 5 May 1994. Before that the Fantasy was broadcast in a truly outstanding performance, by Joseph and William de Pasquale, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. This recording has gained some prominence in radio tapes issued to various foreign broadcasting companies. RB

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