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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Overture to the Choral Operetta: Paul Bunyan arr. Colin Matthews, 1977 (1939-42) [05:07]
Piano Concerto, op.13 (including both original and revised third movement) (1938) [42:55]
Johnson over Jordan - suite from the incidental music (1939) [15:39]
Joanna Macgregor (piano)
English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford (Piano Concerto; Johnson over Jordan Suite)
London Symphony Orchestra/Steuart Bedford (Paul Bunyan)
rec. Johnson over Jordan, Abbey Road Studios, London, UK, June/July 1990; Concerto; Paul Bunyan, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK, October 1989. DDD
NAXOS 8.557197 [63:43]


 

This welcome Naxos disc revives three recordings from the now deleted Collins Classics catalogue, first issued in 1990 and 1991. The Johnson over Jordan Suite and the original third movement of the Concerto are world première recordings.

Of the large number of works that Britten composed during his three year stay in North America, from 1939-42, undoubtedly the most ambitious and substantial was his choral operetta Paul Bunyan. This was based on the story of the giant lumberjack from the pages of American folk-lore. Britten was troubled by the dramatic flaws in the score and sensitive to the negative reviews of several critics. He withdrew the work after a short run of performances. Britten and his librettist and friend W.H. Auden decided to make some cuts and revisions, so as to make it work more suitable for the high-school market. In spite of the drastic alterations, nothing materialised and the work was shelved until it was revived, with a few modifications, more than thirty years later, in 1976.

Britten had composed an overture to his operetta Paul Bunyan, but this was dropped even before the first performance. It seems that there was now no point in Britten orchestrating the piece and the overture remained in piano-score only. In 1977 the composer Colin Matthews, who had worked as Britten’s amanuensis during his final years, orchestrated the overture from the existing piano draft, also utilising certain parts of Britten’s orchestration from the operetta. Thanks to the endeavours of Colin Matthews, the overture now stands as an independent short orchestral work. The orchestration is lean and transparent as opposed to rich and heavy with the brass and percussion dominating. The extensive opening brass fanfares reminded me of Knights jousting, perhaps at the Court of King Arthur, and the textures of the closing section anticipate the fugue that Britten was to later use in his Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34. The London Symphony Orchestra under their conductor Steuart Bedford certainly perform the overture with great confidence and strive to give the work a reputation of more than mere curiosity.

Britten described the Piano Concerto as “simple and direct in form”. It contains distinctive music of considerable expressive force and unsettling intensity, seeming to reflect his torments and anxieties at that time. Britten wrote the score in 1938 as a young man of twenty-four and dedicated the score to his friend and fellow composer Lennox Berkeley. A talented pianist himself, Britten premièred the work himself, at a Henry Wood Promenade concert at the Queens Hall, London, the same year. In 1945 Britten rewrote it, making minor revisions to three of the four movements, replacing the third movement completely. I understand that the first performance of the revised score of the Concerto was given by the Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood at the Aldeburgh festival in 1946. I have also seen the Cheltenham festival claimed as the venue.

The score of the Piano Concerto follows a four movement form: toccata - waltz - impromptu - march. It is generally unsettling, suffused with tension and agitation. In the substantial opening movement, the toccata, MacGregor, with considerable sweep and drive, maintains the necessary forward momentum. At the time that Britten was composing the score, Hitler had invaded Austria. It has been said that the waltz, which is so haunting and poignant, was significantly influenced by the threatening and disturbing situation. In the waltz Macgregor’s playing brings out the irony, blended with a sombre and foreboding atmosphere. The third movement impromptu, that replaced the original recitative and aria, is actually a passacaglia and MacGregor, with considerable proficiency, provides a highly unsettling atmosphere for the listener. The concluding movement is a march which enables Britten to exploit various qualities of the piano; such as its broad range and percussive qualities. With considerable authority the pianist here is able to maintain the movement’s brash swagger.

This release also contains the rarely heard original third movement recitative and aria, which provides the listener with the option of hearing the concerto as Britten first performed it. This is an unusual and exceedingly engaging movement, in which I hear Messiaen-like sounds, strongly evocative of birdsong and birds darting from branch to branch. MacGregor is a confident and highly proficient interpreter and brings this incident-packed movement to life leaving one wondering why Britten dropped and replaced this marvellous movement in the first place. MacGregor’s sterling performance, together with wonderful assistance from the English Chamber Orchestra, make an impressive case for this under-performed, underrated and often sinister work.

The account of the Piano Concerto with Sviatoslav Richter as soloist and the composer conducting the English Chamber Orchestra remains my benchmark recording. It could easily be described as definitive. Richter’s performance was recorded in 1970 at the Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, like that of Joanna MacGregor, nearly twenty years later. I consider Richter’s powerful account to have that extra element of excitement together with the added personal insights from the composer’s direction and a special sense of atmosphere and occasion. Available on Decca London 417 308-2 the coupling is an exceptionally desirable interpretation of Britten’s Violin Concerto, op.15 with Mark Lubotsky as soloist, again with the composer and the English Chamber Orchestra.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, in addition to writing more substantial works, Britten supplemented his income by composing copious amounts of incidental music for radio, stage and film. Britten could be rather dismissive of this music in his later life, no doubt regarding it as hack-work. Since Britten’s death in 1976, a number of these scores have been published and performed, shedding valuable light on a hitherto lesser-known area of his life. Britten’s score for the J.B. Priestley play Johnson over Jordan, was composed in 1939 and features some thirty-five minutes of music, making this one of the longest commercial theatre scores that Britten ever produced. The theatre extravaganza Johnson over Jordan achieved only a small amount of success in London’s West End, with the play closing after a short run.

The six movement suite presented here was arranged by Paul Hindmarsh in 1990. The Overture is framed by a sinister ‘death’ motif which plays a crucial role throughout. The music swiftly gains in intensity before a contemplative close. In the movement Incinerator’s Ballet, Britten utilises some material that can also be heard in the march from his Diversions for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra, op.21 (1940). There is so much activity in this busy and hectic movement that one almost loses sight of what is going on before the music quietly fades away. The movement The Spider and the Fly is a 1930s-style dance number, composed to accompany a night-club scene. This music, containing hints of the foxtrot, is untypical of Britten; if the movement was listened to blind I doubt anyone would guess that Britten was the composer. Finally, the End Music develops the ‘death’ motif and the composer attempts to represent the hero of the play, Robert Johnson, as being finally liberated from earthly life and set free into the cosmos of sky and stars. This music is played with an enthusiasm and vitality that attempts to belie the fact that this only a minor work.

In a well presented recording, first-class booklet notes are provided by Lloyd Moore. On the CD cover Naxos use a fine 1921 picture by A. Heaton-Cooper of ‘The Old Moot Hall’, situated near the beach at Aldeburgh, in Suffolk. Aldeburgh is the town most associated with Britten and he uses the setting of The Old Moot Hall in his masterwork, the opera Peter Grimes. Thanks are due to the Collins Classics engineers who have produced an agreeable sound quality.

Britten’s Piano Concerto is a work that deserves to become an established part of the concerto repertoire. This is an admirable release, excellently performed, that will certainly enhance Britten’s already substantial presence in the catalogue.

Michael Cookson

 

 



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