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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Double Concerto for Violin and Viola (1932) [21:40]
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 (1937) [25:46]
Les Illuminations, Op. 18 (1939) [22:22]
Pieter Schoeman (violin); Alexander Zemtsov (viola); Sally Matthews (soprano);
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, December 2006 (Double Concerto) and Royal Festival Hall, London, April 2008
LPO LIVE LPO0037 [70:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Benjamin Britten was not yet nineteen when, in the space of two months, he composed his Double Concerto. In his diary entry for 6 May 1932 we read “I am putting my Concerto away for a bit.” At that point the work was complete, though the orchestration existed only in the form of detailed sketches. In fact he never came back to it and never heard it. This version is a realisation of the score he put away, made by Colin Matthews in 1977. The opening movement begins with fanfare-like figures which are soon taken up by the soloists and which are recalled at the end of the movement. This feature, and especially the opening chords of the slow movement, over a held pedal note in the bass, are so typical of the mature composer as to be almost uncanny. This slow movement features some remarkably assured and very beautiful writing for the two soloists in duet, in music that never quite settles into anything like repose. The finale opens with repeated notes on the timpani leading to a passage of much rhythmic uncertainty. Given the age of the composer we can hardly complain if it slips for a while into noisy, conventional bombast. But then, just as you think he is working towards an exciting ending, the horn calls from the opening of the work are brought back, transformed into something much more tranquil, this magical ending the irrefutable sign that we are in the presence of an emerging genius. The performance is everything we could wish for. The two soloists, both LPO principal players, give every sign of being totally committed to the work, as does the orchestra under Jurowski. I first encountered this work played by Benjamin Schmid and Daniel Raiskin on an Arte Nova disc (74321 89826 2). There is little to choose between the performances, but readers who decide to buy the present disc are urged to investigate the other too, for its interesting programme including Double Concertos by Arthur Benjamin and Max Bruch.

When, after about a minute or so of Britten Op. 10, Frank Bridge’s theme is heard it seems insubstantial and difficult to discern, a most unpromising subject for a set of variations. In the event the theme is often difficult to pick out within the variations too, so profoundly does Britten develop it. A bewildering number of styles, so many that the work threatens to go out of control, make up this youthful masterpiece. Some of the variations charm the listener - Romance, for example - whereas others, such as Aria Italiana, move the listener by their sheer brilliance. This live performance is brilliantly played and, the strings being fairly numerous, everything is very rich and sonorous, strikingly so in the first variation, Adagio. One is struck throughout by the meticulous attention Jurowski’s pays to Britten’s multitude of dynamic and expression markings. Indeed, with one crucial exception, this must be one of the most accurate performances available. Listen how the opening of March contrives to be both pianissimo and martellato (hammered). And Wiener Walzer is, for once, loud enough, again respecting the score, closer than ever, in spirit at least, to Ravel’s La Valse. This is, then, an outstanding performance, but there are two snags. First of all, I think the engineers might have shortened the pauses between the variations, as the sound of turning pages and some little audience shuffling damages the atmosphere, grievously so between the last two variations. More serious, though, is the problem of the final variation. The first part of the fugue is stunningly played, but in the later, astonishing passage where the theme returns in long values over the chattering fugal strings, those chatterings are just too loud. The young composer’s achievement here, to combine the brilliance of his fugue with the wistful inwardness of Bridge’s theme, is seriously undermined. Nor do the long, sustained E naturals grow out of this texture gradually, as if they have always been there - which, in a way, they have. There are other performances which manage this passage better than here, that conducted by the composer himself on Decca, for example, indispensable.

Though conceived for soprano, most of Les Illuminations was composed in the early days of the composer’s relationship with Peter Pears. Rimbaud’s poems I frankly find hard going and have often wondered if Britten would have bothered with them had he encountered them later in his life. Others, though, will find more in them than I do. The young Britten clearly did, especially affected, apparently, by the line “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (I alone hold the key to this savage parade). Whatever the poems are meant to communicate, the music is direct and wonderfully inspired. The opening fanfares are perhaps not sufficiently trumpet-like here - the score specifies this, after all - but Sally Matthews’ first entry, with the phrase above is striking and dramatic, leading one to expect the best in the remainder of the performance. This is pretty much delivered, with a superbly controlled glissando down from a top B flat at the end of Phrase, and likewise the pianissimo intonation of the “key” phrase at the end of Interlude. The most appreciative comments in my notes refer to quieter passages, though, and when the dynamic level rises to forte or above the singing can be less pleasing. In Villes, for example, there are passages marked giocoso (joyfully) which come over as strident, and the end of Royauté lacks charm - one should listen to Heather Harper’s delicious portamenti here to hear how it might be done. Only one or two odd vowels betray the fact that the singer is not French, but the text is not always audible all the same. This is a good performance of Les Illuminations, though, and one I will come back to, even if I prefer either Heather Harper or Jill Gomez, both on EMI.

Applause is retained only after Les Illuminations. Otherwise, the problems mentioned in the Variations are the only real signs that these are live recordings. The booklet contains a most readable and informative note by David Matthews.

William Hedley

see also review by Siebe Riedstra 


 


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