RECORD OF THE MONTH
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto, op. 15 1 (1939, rev. 1958) [30:32]
Double Concerto in B minor 2 (1932) ed. Matthews (1997) [20:36]
Lachrymae, op. 48a 3 (1950, rev. 1976) [13:08]
1, 2 Anthony Marwood (violin), 2, 3 Lawrence Power (viola)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 12-13 January 2011, DDD
HYPERION CDA67801 [64:18]
Ilan Volkov brings a sense of unease and regret to the brief orchestral introduction to Britten’s Violin Concerto. At the same time there’s a wish to reflect and press forward. Anthony Marwood’s violin solo takes on all these elements but introduces the fresh perspective of a lyrical heart. There is here a fundamental beauty in the context of fraught experience. Surprisingly it’s sweetly lyrical but is not lacking in urgency of conviction. Come the second theme (tr. 1 2:47) he adds an element of frenzy. The tortuous way back from this to lyricism is clearly displayed but achieved. The presentation is fluent. You can be in no doubt about the sinister military presence. The insistent opening drum motif which travels to the bassoons, strings and is finally taken up by the soloist at the recapitulation is presented as a disciplined progression but so much so as to sound a bit staged. That motif retains its eminence while the orchestra’s muted violins and violas ponder the soloist’s opening theme, at first dreamily but gradually coming to a climax (6:52). The soloist, who soars above all this in his musing, intensifies this experience and elevates it to the spiritual.
I compared Britten’s own recording made in 1970 with violinist Mark Lubotsky and the English Chamber Orchestra (Decca 4173082). At 7:17 their opening movement is a deal faster than the Hyperion: 9:04. This makes for a more dramatic urgency of projection. The orchestral responses to the violin’s solos are more biting but the reflective moments are less expansive. This latter quality is reserved for special effect at the return of the violin’s lyricism where the music is marked espress. e rubato (4:35 in Marwood). Britten brings a greater sense of melancholy to the orchestra’s recapitulation and to the brief stab of massive despair at the climax. Lubotsky’s response, like an escape into objectivity, misses Marwood’s luminosity.
After the notable sweetness of the first movement, in the scherzo (tr. 2) Marwood exhibits a contrasting gruffness. Volkov equally brings out in the orchestra a brutality in the humour and a biting clarity of outline. What you remember more, however, is the return to lyricism, albeit brief, in the alluring and in this interpretation suddenly humane violin’s central theme (2:06). Marwood also shows memorable poise in the later episodes of lyrical musing (3:24). Delaying the soloist’s cadenza until this point it begins with an exchange of the brutal and lyrical followed by the lyricism and drum motto familiar from the first movement. Marwood succeeds in presenting this as much dramatic argument as virtuoso display. Lubotsky and Britten make the scherzo more dancing and brilliant yet in a less hard-edged fashion. Lubotsky’s lyricism is quieter, less luscious than Marwood’s though Britten makes the orchestra’s take-up and manic repetition of the opening of the lyrical theme more graphically oppressive. Lubotsky’s cadenza is intense but, at 3:09 in comparison with Marwood’s 2:48, has less urgency. The sense of linking all the elements together as part of the same person’s story is also diluted.
The Passacaglia finale (tr. 3) is marked Andante lento. I like the way Marwood and Volkov emphasise the former element so the theme, albeit weighty, really progresses. The solo violin’s first variation (1:54) has an individual fragility but also the hope of its own animation and assertiveness. The third variation (3:23) begins a dreamy idyll yet in the soloist a deliberation and solemnity develops. The fourth (4:38) is freer but the soloist now refuses the sweetness of the orchestral strings. The sixth (5:56) is the lightest as Marwood flutters exhilaratingly above the theme in the bassoon. Volkov highlights the regal quality in the horns that dominate the opening of the seventh variation (6:18). Marwood picks this up to lead into the steely strength of the orchestral Largamente presentation (6:57). Yet his response in peroration is somewhat thrown off, as if unconvinced by this majestic stoicism. Thus he prepares for the haunting coda (8:53). It is full of yearning, flecked by leaps into the stratosphere, offering no solution but the conviction we must keep going and hoping. Lubotsky and Britten offer a slower treatment, taking 13:35 against the Hyperion 12:48. This initially stresses the inevitability of the formal placing of the ground bass statements. It also makes Lubotsky more careworn in variation 3 and the horns’ majesty in variation 6 more aggressive. Britten’s Largamente presentation is more triumphant, Lubotsky’s response more staunch. Both make the coda a more intimate, veiled confession yet each performance offers a vivid experience.
The Double Concerto was written around the same time as the Sinfonietta and is similarly fresh, outlandish and rather abrasive. Early on in the first movement (tr. 4) it has spiky solo work for violin and viola. At 2:02 the viola begins a more lyrical mood. Joined by the violin this becomes lighter, sunnier and you appreciate in this performance how the soloists feed off each other. The second movement is a rhapsody but it’s the viola’s relaxed, dance-like take-up of the violin’s opening expatiation that becomes the basis of the climax. This is open-air music without being folksy. The quirky finale opens with brilliant violin flourishes to a viola pizzicato accompaniment. This is before both join together and the orchestra takes up the running semiquavers. It’s not memorable melodically but it is full of verve. The work’s opening is recalled in a pleasant calm-down at the close.
To Lachrymae (tr. 7), ‘Reflections on a song of Dowland’, Lawrence Power brings the varied experience of a rounded character. There’s a nonchalant but dancing first reflection (1:43). The pizzicato extravaganza of the second (2:38) is punctuated by very soft chords for strings in 11 parts, marvellously still here. In the seventh reflection (7:19) Power glides as if gracefully sleep walking over the strings’ rather hesitant waltz. The eighth (8:18) is razor sharp sul ponticello, real in the orchestra, imitated by the soloist. The ninth reflection (9:04) is an icy scene vividly created with falling strings and here in the alternative version a soloist who mirrors them. In the excitement of the following finale Power gathers dynamic and pace. This erupts into a passionate first revelation of the theme on which the reflections have been built before becalming to a sober yet humane warmth.
As throughout this CD a distinctive soloist contribution is matched by sensitively weighted, varying orchestral presence. It really makes its mark.
Distinctive soloists matched by sensitively weighted, varying orchestral presence.