BRITTEN: Violin Concerto / Cello Symphony
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Violin Concerto; CelloSymphony
What's in a name? Isit just piquant coincidence that one of Britain's greatest composers was called- Britten? Benjamin Britten's beloved mother certainly saw significance in hermarried surname: extolling the 'three Bs' - Bach, Beethoven and Brahms - shewas 'determined' the fourth would be Britten. Benjamin was her fourth child,born, auspiciously, on November 22nd - St Cecilia's Day, feast day of thepatron saint of music.
The future composer'schildhood home faced the North Sea in Lowestoft, the most easterly town inBritain. Britten loved his native Suffolk, feeling 'firmly rooted in thisglorious county'; he could have added the words of fisherman Peter Grimes inhis most famous opera '...by familiar fields, marsh and sand, ordinary streets,prevailing wind'. What drew Britten and his lover and muse, the tenor PeterPears, back from their new life in America in the early 1940s? Britten'srediscovery of the Suffolk poet George Crabbe, whose The Borough inspiredPeter Grimes. Where did Britten and Pears settle? That very 'Borough',Aldeburgh, another Suffolk coastal town which, thanks to Britten, has been homesince 1948 to one of Britain's finest music festivals. He found 'workingbecomes more and more difficult away from that home'.
A quintessentiallyEnglish, provincial composer, then? Far from it. After Britten's death TheTimes acclaimed him 'the first British composer to capture and hold theattention of musicians and their audiences the world over'. Britten's technicalbrilliance and openness to continental trends distinguished him from the start.
In the 1920s the precocious 13-year-old - pianist, viola-player and alreadyprolific composer (shades of Mozart) - was fortunate to find a compositionteacher in Frank Bridge, virtually the only British composer with a sympathyfor the central European avant-garde of Schoenberg, Berg and Bartok, orneo-classical Stravinsky. To those models Britten added Mahler and Shostakovich. Nowonder the conservative Royal College of Music, which he attended from 1930,suffered culture shock, especially when Britten proposed to use a travel grantto study with Berg. (He didn't).
The mainstay of Britten's international appeal is the stream of operaticmasterpieces initiated by Peter Grimes in 1945; but they, and his otherPears-inspired vocal music, mask further important creative strands: pieces foryoung people and instrumental music. True, for a decade in mid-career Brittenwrote practically nothing substantial without voices; but before Grimes hischamber and orchestral compositions outnumbered vocal works two to one; andafter 1960 musical friendships revitalised that interest. This recordingcouples products of both 'instrumental' periods - kindred pieces, sharingBritten's conviction that each (when he wrote it) was his finest, and roots inhis rapport with particular soloists.
The Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa met Britten through Frank Bridge inthe early thirties; following the Suite, Op. 6, the ViolinConcerto (1938-9, revised 1950s) was the second Britten piece Brosapremi?¿red - in 1940, Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic atCarnegie Hall. Started during the Spanish Civil War, finished four weeks intothe Second World War - when the pacifist Britten wrote, 'it's at times likethese that work is so important, that humans can think of other things thanblowing each other up' - the music is 'rather serious, I'm afraid'. Its darkmood and tripartite structure, virtuosic scherzo flanked by more lyricalmovements, suggest another British violin concerto from 1938-9 first heard inthe non-combatant U.S.A. - Walton's; Britten's initial drum motif (a 'Spanishrhythm', Brosa said) suggests a violin concerto classic - Beethoven's. Thisrhythm survives the first movement's struggle, the violin's meditative openingmelody triumphing over its biting, would-be-military second theme. Wild, brilliantly-orchestrated, the scherzo hintsat Prokofiev, Shostakovich, even - in a flash of fantasy for two piccolos plustuba - Berlioz. Reconciling earlier conflict, the Cadenza launches the Passacaglia,first of what became a favourite Britten form, unfolding over a repeatedbass - here introduced by trombones then stepping lower and changing each time.
The moving final fadeout, in a favourite Britten key, D - but major or minor? -is 'impressive evidence,' for Peter Evans, 'of a command of absolute expressiveforms not fully realized until the Cello Symphony.'
By consensus Britten'sorchestral zenith, the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (1963) recreatesthe Cadenza-Passacaglia conclusion and focus on D; its inspiration,dedicatee, champion, was the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
Rostropovich's British premi?¿re of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 in1960 brought Britten new friendships with both composer and soloist;Rostropovich's artistry - plus artful persuasive powers in his pidgin'Aldeburgh Deutsch'(!) - drew more music from Britten than any other performersave Pears: a sonata, three unaccompanied suites (recorded by Tim Hugh on Naxos8.553663) and this 'Symphony'. Not 'Concerto': witness its four-movement form,scant conventional solo virtuosity, and character: 'an argument on equalterms', Britten said - like Frank Bridge's cello and orchestra Oration. Premi?¿red,appropriately, in Moscow, the Cello Symphony epitomises Britten's newstylistic economy following his kaleidoscopic opera A Midsummer Night'sDream and all-embracing War Requiem (Naxos 8.553558-59): everythinggrows from the simplest intervals - seconds, thirds. Contrabassoon, tuba,double basses, percussion below, keening woodwind above, the cello speaksfreely, eloquently. The eerie scherzo's ceaseless evolution contrastswith the (for Britten) unusually strict sonata-form first movement, butredoubles its tragic drama. The profound slow movement and Cadenza's commonthemes germinate the Passacaglia's solo-led repeating bass and brilliantD major trumpet melody, which kindle the glorious final apotheosis: darknessinto light.