BRITTEN: Piano Concerto / Johnson Over Jordan Suite (English Chamber Orchestra/ Joanna MacGregor/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Steuart Bedford) (Naxos: 8.557197)
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Paul Bunyan Overture Piano Concerto Johnson Over Jordan (Suite)
Of the large number of works that Britten composedduring his three-year stay in America from 1939-42,undoubtedly the most ambitious and substantial wasPaul Bunyan, the 'choral operetta' based on the giantlumberjack of American myth that he wrote incollaboration with the poet W.H. Auden. Troubled bydramatic flaws and the negative reviews of severalcritics, Britten withdrew the work after the first run ofperformances in New York in 1941 and it was onlyrevived (with a few modifications) in 1976. For theoriginal production, Britten had composed an overture tothe work, but this was dropped before the show evenopened. It remained in piano score only and it wouldappear that Britten never got round to orchestrating it. In1977, the composer Colin Matthews, who had worked asBritten's amanuensis during the composer's final years,orchestrated the Overture from the existing two-pianodraft, in which form it now stands as an independentconcert item. The Overture's majestic opening music istaken from the opening of the second act of the operettawhere it accompanies Bunyan's 'Good Morning' to hisloggermen (Matthews has here used Britten's ownorchestration), while the birdsong that begins the firstact provides much of the basic material for the fastsection that follows, the busily contrapuntal texturesanticipating the famous fugue in the Young Person'sGuide to the Orchestra composed some four years later.
The Piano Concerto, Op. 13, was written during thespring of 1938 and was originally designated 'No. 1'.
It was, however, to be Britten's only example of theform (though mention should be made of the Diversions,Op. 21, for piano (left-hand) and orchestra, written forPaul Wittgenstein in 1940). The concerto, dedicated tothe composer Lennox Berkeley, was written as a vehiclefor Britten's own skills as a pianist and was firstperformed with him as soloist at a Henry WoodPromenade Concert at the Queen's Hall, London, inAugust 1938. In the programme note for that occasionBritten stated that the work was 'conceived with the ideaof exploiting various important characteristics of thepianoforte, such as its enormous compass, its percussivequality, and its suitability for figuration; so that it is notby any means a Symphony with pianoforte, but rather abravura Concerto with orchestral accompaniment'. Thefour movements have titles which may suggest a workof suite or divertimento-like character: Toccata, Waltz,Impromptu and March. The work is tightly constructed,however, with various cross-relationships between themovements helping to bind it together. The openingToccata is a conventional sonata-form structure withtwo clearly defined subjects, the first played by thesoloist in martellato octaves over pulsating chords in thewind while the second subject is a more sustained,lyrical theme first heard on the strings and subsequentlypassed to the woodwind. Dividing these is an arrestingfanfare-like motif on the brass based on two alternatingchords, an idea which will recur in various altered guisesthroughout the work. After the cadenza Britten providesformal resolution by superimposing the second subject,played tranquillo on the piano, over a version of the firstplayed on pizzicato lower strings and harp inaugmentation, a characteristic recapitulatory device thathe also employed in the first movements of theSinfonietta, the Violin Concerto and the Second StringQuartet. The Waltz is clearly an exercise in the ironic,satirical vein that Britten had already exploited in workssuch as the Frank Bridge Variations. After a quiet fourthon two muted horns, a solo viola proposes the elegantwaltz theme, subsequently extended by the clarinet. Thepiano enters with a quiet version of the fanfare beforetaking over the waltz tune amid much bizarreaccompanimental detail from the orchestra. A contrastingtrio section includes an extraordinary staccato tuttipassage played pianissimo with prominent glockenspieland col legno strings before the waltz returns fortissimo,followed by a quiet coda in which the horn's fourth isshown to be directly related to the fanfare. The theme ofthe Impromptu, composed in 1945 to replace the originalRecitative and Aria, is actually taken from the incidentalmusic that Britten had composed for the radio play KingArthur in April 1937. First stated simply on the piano, itthen forms the basis for a series of variations in theorchestra, to which the soloist adds suitableembellishments. The final March has a brash swaggerthat, in all likelihood, is another of Britten's musicalresponses to the approaching threat of the Second WorldWar, the deliberately banal main theme carrying morethan a suggestion of Shostakovich (as well as some ofthe more militaristic of Mahler's Wunderhorn songssuch as Revelge). A more relaxed central episode helpsease the tension, but the piano uses the fanfare idea tobuild a slow crescendo - bass drum with attachedcymbals providing rhythmic support - before the maintheme reappears triumphantly in a grandiose D majorperoration. Reminiscences of the first movementprovide a final unifying gesture before the work comesto its curt and grimly determined conclusion.
The version of the Piano Concerto that is commonlyperformed today is the revised one that Britten preparedin 1945, substituting the Recitative and Aria with thenewly composed Impromptu. This disc, however,includes a rare recording of the original third movement,thus offering the option of hearing the work as Brittenfirst envisioned it.
During the 1930s and early 1940s, in addition towriting those more substantial works by which he wouldbe judged by posterity, Britten supplemented his incomeby writing a copious amount of incidental music forradio, stage and film. His technical prowess andphenomenal facility, combined with a strongly ingrainedwork ethic, meant that he was able to produce highqualitymusic at great speed. Although he could berather dismissive of this music in later life, no doubtregarding it as little more than hack-work, since hisdeath in 1976 a number of these scores have beenpublished and performed shedding valuable light on ahitherto unknown area of his output. His score for theJ.B. Priestley play Johnson over Jordan was composedduring February 1939. In three acts and featuring some35 minutes worth of music, this was one of the longestcommercial theatre scores that Britten ever produced.
The story revolves around the character of RobertJohnson who, as the play opens, has recently died. Wethen see scenes from his life in reverse, culminating inthe moment when he must be released from thepurgatory-like state known as 'Bardo' and say farewellto everything he knows. The first performance wasgiven on 22nd February, 1939, at the New Theatre,London, directed by Basil Dean with Ralph Richardsonin the title r??le. After a short time it transferred to theSaville Theatre where it enjoyed a relatively successfulrun, to which Britten's music made a significantcontribution. The suite heard on the present recordingwas compiled by Paul Hindmarsh in 1990 and firstperformed in a BBC Radio 3 broadcast with theNorthern Sinfonia conducted by Odaline de la Martinez.
The Overture is framed by the sinister 'death' motifwhich plays a crucial r??le throughout the score. TheIncinerator's Ballet originally accompanied a scene inwhich bags of banknotes, symbols of greed and avarice,were ceremoniously burned (listeners familiar with theaforementioned Diversions will note that Britten redeployedsome of the thematic material in the Marchfrom that work). This is followed by The Spider and theFly, an irresistible 1930s dance-band number written toaccompany a night-club scene. Finally, the End Musicdevelops the 'death' motif, culminating in a radiantD major apotheosis in which Johnson is finally liberatedfrom earthly lif