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
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.