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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Piano Concerto in D Major Op.13 (1938) [32:27] (CD includes original version of the third movement) [09:10]
Young Apollo Op.16 for piano, string quartet and string orchestra (1939) [6:56]
Diversions for piano (left hand) and orchestra Op.21 (1940) [22:26]
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 21-23 September 2007
HYPERION CDA67625 [71:16]

Experience Classicsonline


I first heard this new CD in HMV Oxford Street. I was browsing under the letter ‘B’ when I suddenly became aware of hearing a superb performance of the opening ‘Toccata’ of Britten’s Piano Concerto. It was one of the best renditions that I had ever heard – in spite of the noise in the shop and the sounds of less-challenging music percolating into the ‘classical’ section. I was brought up on Sviatoslav Richter’s fine performance of this work on the ‘old’ Decca recording with Mark Lubotsky and the English Chamber Orchestra. In addition, I have Joanna MacGregor’s notable release on Naxos. However, what I was hearing in the record-shop had a pizzazz about it that I found thrilling and thoroughly impressive. I went over to the assistant and asked him who was playing. He looked at me and said "Britten" – I was tempted to make remarks about ‘still in diapers’ etc. but I forewent sarcasm, smiled sweetly and said, "No, who is playing"? He found the cover and told me, "Steven Osborne". Then the penny dropped: I remembered that Len Mullenger was sending me this disc for review. Now, I could not wait. Fortunately I still had a deal of browsing to do, so I heard the rest of the Concerto, Young Apollo and the first few Diversions – until my mobile went and my friend asked me where I was and when would I be arriving at The Gluepot!

The Piano Concerto in D major was the first extended orchestral piece that Britten had written – although he was later to compose fine concertos for cello and for violin - there is also the beautiful ‘juvenile’ Double Concerto penned in 1932.

The composer wrote that the Piano Concerto was conceived "with the idea of exploiting the various important characteristics of the piano, such as its enormous compass, its percussive quality, its suitability for figuration; so that it is not by any means a symphony with piano, but rather a bravura concerto with orchestral accompaniment."

There is no doubt that this is one of most exuberant piano concertos in the repertoire. Yet it is relatively little played, and although there are some ten recordings of this work currently in the catalogue it hardly compares to, say, Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, which has in excess of fifty!

In spite of a certain ‘New York’ feel to this work, it was actually composed before Britten went to the United States. It was written in the spring of 1938 when he was living in the Suffolk village of Snape. At this time he was sharing accommodation at the Old Mill with Lennox Berkeley. Britten himself was the soloist at a performance of this work at the ‘Proms’ in the same year: Henry Wood was the conductor.

It was not too well received in some quarters – one reviewer suggesting that the composer’s cleverness had got the better of him. Yet nowadays we would be much more inclined to agree with F. Bonavia writing in the New York Times where he notes a variety of qualities including interest, jollity, wit, good humour and jest. Surely this is a masterpiece that ought to be both popular and an essential part of the concert pianist repertoire?

In 1945 Britten decided to withdraw the third movement, which originally was a ‘recitative and aria’ and to replace it with the present Impromptu. Interestingly, in the ‘new’ movement, Britten used material from some incidental music he had written for a BBC play, King Arthur and also incorporated some references to the first and second movements. Fortunately both ‘third’ movements are on this CD and allow and interesting insight into the composer’s style and mindset at this time.

Young Apollo is probably the least well known of these three pieces- perhaps because the composer suppressed it in 1939. It was not played again until an Aldeburgh Festival concert in 1979. Additionally, Britten wrote it for the relatively unusual combination of soloist, string quartet and string orchestra. The work was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was first performed in that country in 1939. The composer was the soloist.

Its inspiration is imagery from John Keats’ poem ‘Hyperion’. The old order of the Gods has ended. Saturn, Hyperion and many others have to make way for the gods of light, youth, beauty and laughter. Mnemosyne, the former goddess of memory, charges Apollo to be the new god of beauty. His mortal form is abandoned and he is revealed in his true glory – "He stands before us - the new, dazzling Sun-god, quivering with radiant vitality." However, the listener is left wondering if the true hero of this piece is Britten himself?

A number of works were written for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Concerto by Maurice Ravel. However, there were other works by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Richard Strauss, Bohuslav Martinů and Franz Schmidt. Moreover, the story of Prokofiev’s Fourth Concerto is well known: when presented with the score of the new piece, Wittgenstein handed the work back to the composer saying – "… thank-you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note and I shall not play it." Another composer who wrote a concerto for the pianist was Norman Demuth. He is not a name that is on the tip of every listener’s tongue, with virtually no recorded music, yet somehow I feel that this piece would make an interesting discovery?

Paul Wittgenstein approached Britten’s publishers in 1940 with a proposal that he should write him a piece. Arrangements were finalised between the "somewhat imperious" pianist and the composer over dinner. Britten wrote to his sister, "I’ve been commissioned by a man called Wittgenstein – a one armed pianist - to write him a concerto. He pays gold so I’ll do it." By October 1940 it was more or less complete: it was premiered on 16 January 1942.

A superficial hearing would hardly suggest that the works was written for ‘left-hand’ alone. Britten stated that there is an emphasis on the ‘single-line approach’. The programme notes rightly point out that this feature has more in common with Prokofiev than Ravel. Ravel managed to give the soloist's part an ‘aural illusion’ of being written for two hands. Yet Britten has obviously given much thought to the technical possibilities and limitations of playing with one hand. As such, it manages to sound both complex and satisfying. This is no soft touch for the soloist! And do not forget to look out for some intimations of Peter Grimes – particularly in the fifth and tenth variations.

It is a mystery to me why these ‘early’ works by BB are relatively little known. Surely, the Concerto or the Diversions would impress orchestral audiences everywhere. However, I suppose the diet of ‘Rach and Tchaik and Chop’ will continue to prevail.

It is not my intention to mark this CD ‘out of ten’ – or to try to rate it against other versions that are still in or out of the catalogue: for one thing, it is always difficult to relinquish a cherished favourite recording for a new production. Yet there are three things that would make me consider this present disc as a ‘first choice’ (after Richter!) Firstly, Osborne is quite simply brilliant. Even a superficial hearing of this work will reveal dazzling playing and a totally convincing response to what is largely positive and often exhilarating music. Each work has different charms and challenges and Osborne responds to them all. These are great works, which show optimism, ability and sheer technical brilliance. Secondly, this CD presents all of Britten’s ‘concertante’ works for piano and orchestra, so it is a fine conspectus of this music. Lastly it is good to have the ‘discarded’ third movement of the Concerto. Britten enthusiasts will be delighted at being able to recreate this work in a variety of incarnations. I know that this movement was also issued on the Naxos recording.

The programme notes by Robert Matthew-Walker are detailed, informative and very readable. This is a great CD: for all enthusiasts of Britten it is essential. For music-lovers in general it is a fine introduction to some of the composer’s earlier scores.

John France


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