BRITTEN: Violin Concerto / Canadian Carnival / Mont Juic

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Canadian Carnival Violin Concerto

Britten / Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989): Mont Juic

Benjamin Britten's post-war pre-eminence as an operacomposer has tended somewhat to overshadow theconsiderable achievements of his earlier years. Thethree works included on this recording all date from thelate 1930s at a time when Britten, then in his midtwenties,was fluently and prolifically writing works inevery medium. Two lighter and still relatively littleknownorchestral works here frame the Violin Concerto,one of the most substantial and serious of thecomposer's instrumental scores.

In April 1939, keen to distance himself from somepersonal issues at home and in any case happy to beleaving what he felt to be the uncongenial artisticclimate in England, Britten, in the company of PeterPears, set sail across the Atlantic in search of freshopportunities in America. Before reaching their ultimatedestination, the two men spent a few weeks in Canadawhere Britten attended a performance of his FrankBridge Variations given by the Canadian BroadcastingCorporation. It was during this stay that Brittenconceived the idea for an orchestral work based onFrench-Canadian folk-tunes. Originally planned as asuite, it instead became a single-movement workentitled Canadian Carnival (or Kermesse Canadienne),which was completed in December 1939. The firstperformance was given back in Britain as part of a radiobroadcast on the BBC Home Service in June 1940 withClarence Raybould conducting the BBC SymphonyOrchestra. As with the American Overture composedsome two years later, it seems that Britten was intent onassimilating the recognisably American, 'open-prairie'sound associated above all with the music of AaronCopland. Indeed, Britten was in regular contact withCopland at this time and the American composer'sinfluence is apparent from the opening bars ofCanadian Carnival. Over a quiet roll on suspendedcymbals, a lone off-stage trumpet intones a nostalgicfanfare-like theme, which is then taken up by variouswind and brass soloists as if sounding across vastmountain distances. After a climax is reached, theviolins break in with a lively 'alla danza' ideasuggestive of a hoe-down. An expressive rising third onthe trumpets, echoed by horns and bassoons forms thebasis of a graceful new theme, marked Andanteamoroso, featuring paired woodwind and brassinstruments over a slow waltz-like accompaniment onthe harp. After reaching a climax, a mysterioustransitional episode featuring divisi muted violins overquiet chords in the brass and harp leads to a somewhatquirky treatment of the well-known folk-song'Alouette', beginning quietly on the woodwind butgradually increasing in volume and excitement to ariotous climax. A maestoso return of the openingtrumpet melody on the full orchestra leads to anabbreviated review of the opening material until the offstagetrumpet and cymbals sound once again, windingthe music down to a peaceful close.

For all its ebullience and brilliance of orchestralcolour, Canadian Carnival is essentially a jeu d'espritthat does not find Britten working at full compositionalpressure. The same, however, could certainly not besaid of the Violin Concerto, one of the composer'sfinest works and one that fully stands comparison withthe violin concertos of Berg, Bartok, Prokofiev andShostakovich. Inexplicably, the work remainedrelatively little-known during Britten's lifetime and it isonly in recent years that its full value and significancehave come to be recognised. In April 1936, Britten hadattended the International Society for ContemporaryMusic Festival in Barcelona where he had accompaniedthe violinist Antonio Brosa in the first performance ofthe Suite Op. 6. The festival programme also includedthe posthumous world premi?¿re of Berg's ViolinConcerto, which made a deep impression on Britten. Itis tempting to infer that Britten might have beeninspired to compose his own concerto after hearing theBerg performance, but apart from sharing apredominately sombre, elegiac atmosphere, the twoworks have little in common. A more urgent source ofinspiration for Britten was the rising tide of Fascism inSpain and the worsening political climate which wouldultimately throw the country into civil war. In thisrespect, the Violin Concerto follows in the line of anumber of other Britten works from this period,including Our Hunting Fathers, the Ballad of Heroesand the Sinfonia da Requiem, in which he gave artisticexpression to his growing awareness and anxiety atdeveloping world events. Britten began composition ofthe concerto in November 1938 and completed it inSeptember of the following year. The first performancewas given on 28th March 1940 at Carnegie Hall in NewYork with Brosa as soloist and John Barbirolliconducting the New York Philharmonic. Britten madesome minor revisions, mainly with regard to the solopart, in 1950 and 1954.

The first movement is a prime example of Britten'shighly original re-thinking of sonata-form. The workopens with a quiet rhythmic motif on timpani andcymbals which, tranferred to bassoon and flutes,underpins the soloist's entry with the intensely lyricalfirst theme. After a cadenza-like passage, this is takenup by the orchestral wind. An abrupt change of texturebrings about an insistent repeated-note idea which inturn serves as an accompaniment to the vigorous secondsubject, played agitato ma espressivo on the soloist's Gstring.

This too is developed by the wind. The highpointof the movement comes when the strings gentlyreinstate the first theme, beautifully harmonized, whilethe soloist superimposes a fusion of bothaccompaniment ideas. The second subject is notrecapitulated, but the repeated-note figure returns in thecoda as a delicate counterpoint to the violin's ascent in aluminous glow of double-stopped harmonics. Thescherzo is a whirlwind of energy, ferociously difficultfor the soloist, with resourceful and incisiveorchestration, though the melodic material is almostentirely derived from simple ascending and descendingscales. After a contrasting 'trio' section in which apleading motif from the soloist is continually undercutby orchestral interjections of the scherzo material, thereis a bizarre transitional passage in which two piccolosplay a flickering ostinato while underneath, the tuba inits lowest register reintroduces the scalic patterns fromearlier on, an astonishingly imaginative idea. Apowerful and menacing orchestral tutti leads into anextensive cadenza which functions as a resume ofthematic material heard thus far while also forging alink to the final Passacaglia which is begun withsolemn dignity by the trombones making their firstappearance in the work. A series of variations follows,widely varied in mood and character. After a sustainedLargamente climax brings about a decisive resolutiononto the tonic D, there is a long drawn-out andhauntingly beautiful coda in which sequences of slowmovingorchestral chords are answered by the violin'simpassioned lament which finally trails off with a hightrill on the notes F sharp and F natural so that neither themajor nor minor mode is established - in 1938, with theworld situation hanging in the balance, the future wasunknown.

The Barcelona excursion also provided theinspiration for the short orchestral suite Mont Juic,which Britten composed in collaboration with LennoxBerkeley in 1937. Britten met Berkeley during the mid-1930s through their mutual friend, Peter Burra (Burra,to whose memory Mont Juic is dedicated, was tragicallykilled in an aircraft crash in April 1937) and during thisperiod, the two men were on close terms: they sharedBritten's home at the Old Mill in Snape, Suffolk, for atime and Berkeley was Britten's travelling companionto the ISCM festival where his own Domini est Terrawas due to be performed. The idea for the suite wasinspired by a display of folk-dancing that the twocomp
Item number 8557198
Barcode 747313219827
Release date 07/01/2005
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists McAslan, Lorraine
McAslan, Lorraine
Composers Britten, Benjamin
Berkeley, Lennox
Britten, Benjamin
Berkeley, Lennox
Conductors Bedford, Steuart
Bedford, Steuart
Orchestras English Chamber Orchestra
English Chamber Orchestra
Disc: 1
Mont Juic - Suite of Catalan Dances, Op. 9 / Mont
1 Canadian Carnival - overture, Op. 19
2 I. Moderato con moto
3 II. Vivace - Cadenza
4 III. Passacaglia: Andante lento - Con moto
5 I. Andante maestoso
6 II. Allegro grazioso
7 III. Lament: Andante moderato
8 IV. Allegro molto
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