ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS
BENJAMIN BRITTEN - Violin Concerto


BENJAMIN BRITTEN - Violin Concerto - Double Concerto - Lachrymae - Anthony Marwood (Violin) - Lawrence Power (Viola) - Ilan Volkov (Conductor) - BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra - 034571178011 - Released: February 2012 - Hyperion CDA67801

Benjamin Britten, along with Shostakovich, was preeminent among mid-twentieth Century composers. He will probably be best remembered in the long term for his operas, particularly Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and Billy Budd, but his oeuvre also includes a richness of other vocal works and a not insubstantial number of instrumental ones. Here we have a collection of two concertos and the concerto-like Lachrymae.

Written in 1939 while the then twenty-six year old composer was staying in Joliette, Québec, Britten's Violin Concerto is one of the glories of the twentieth-century concerto repertoire. It has been slow in achieving popularity. As recently as twenty years ago, the only important recording of it was Ida Haendel's on EMI. Without a doubt, that recording remains among the best, but it has had some credible competition in recent years. Janine Jansen's recording, coupled with a decent account of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, springs to mind. (These two concertos have one striking similarity: each begins with a timpani solo which defines the rhythmic pulse of much of the music to follow.) The concerto is in three movements, the first dominated by a nervous tango-like rhythm. The second is a kind of scherzo that culminates in a cadenza which, in turn, introduces the passacaglia third movement. The entire work is intensely emotional, especially the passacaglia. It expresses a desolation that at times becomes almost ecstatic. Violinist Anthony Marwood goes at the score with fervor. His tone tends toward the steely which often heightens the sense of alienation intrinsic to the work. This factor will not appeal to everyone and the performance would not be a first recommendation, fine though it is in most respects. The orchestral playing under the baton of Ilan Volkov is right on the same emotional pitch as the soloist's.

But the CD would be worth acquiring for the less familiar works it includes. The Double Concerto for violin, viola and orchestra is a curiosity. It was written when the composer was only nineteen and a student under composer John Ireland. (Britten under Ireland has a curious ring to it, don't you think?) The composer put it aside once it was completed and it was not performed until 1997, twenty-one years after his death. It is far from a masterpiece, yet Britten fans will certainly enjoy it for its hints of things to come. The performance is committed and expert, giving this concerto as fair a hearing as you're likely to encounter.

Lachrymae is a set of oblique variations, or reflections, on a song of Dowland, "If my complaints could passion move". Originally for viola and piano, the composer orchestrated it in 1976, just months before his death. It is a spare work, initially enigmatic but coming together in a satisfying manner in the later pages of the score. Violist Lawrence Power evinces a natural sympathy for the music and, as before, conductor Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra do their part with élan.

Richard Todd - May 2012