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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

Early Works

  • Young Apollo
  • Double Concerto for Violin, Viola & Orchestra
  • Two Portraits for String Orchestra
  • Sinfonietta for Small Orchestra
Gidon Kremer, violin
Yuri Bashmet, viola
Nikolai Lugansky, piano
Hallé Orchestra/Kent Nagano
Erato 3984-25502-2 58:36
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Summary for the Busy Executive: New kid on the block.

Right now, it looks as if Britten is poised to enter the Temple of the Eternally Great, although the general critical judgment of his work has changed somewhat: from that of a brilliant all-rounder like Mozart to that of primarily a superb opera composer. I tend to side more with the earlier assessment. At any rate, with the status of classic hanging about him, however, performers have begun to shed light on the darker places of his output: the radio, stage, and movie music, the student works (misleadingly labeled), and the pieces of the Thirties leading up to the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. None of the works on this CD, with the possible exception of the Sinfonietta, can claim a large fan base. Indeed, the producers claim three recording premières: the Double Concerto, the Two Portraits, and the chamber-orchestra version of the Sinfonietta. I believe it's more like two premières, since I have a Lyrita recording of this incarnation of the Sinfonietta (SRCS.111, Norman Del Mar conducting). So I wonder about Colin Matthews's very convincing explanation (Britten left the only version of the score in the U.S. when he returned to England in 1942).

The Two Portraits come from 1930, Britten's 16th or 17th year. He had by then studied privately with Frank Bridge for about two years. He scored the work for strings, adding a solo viola in the second movement – "E. B. B.", a self-portrait, as it turns out. Britten played the viola and received at birth the name Edward Benjamin Britten. At any rate, the string writing is jaw-droppingly expert, particularly startling in one so young, the independence of parts preternaturally clear, without a trace of academicism. Even before his opus 1, Britten has found his early voice. Furthermore, both portraits run to some length. In their artistic maturity, the Portraits rival Mendelssohn's Octet. Indeed, in all the works on this CD, one notices Britten's ability, barely out of short pants, to conceive of a movement entire and organic, free of dependence on textbook models. The first portrait, for example, varies a single idea over changes in sonority and rhythm without ever running out of gas. The second shows traces of the English pastoral school, as seen in the Warlock circle, particularly E. J. Moeran, and even in John Ireland. This movement also grows out of a single idea - indeed, an idea that doesn't promise very much. However, the young composer spins straw into gold and produces a piece of grave beauty. Britten calling these works "portraits" and identifying the sitters tempt one to connect the music to the people. The first portrays a school friend of Britten's, David Layton. The music is impetuous and suave at the same time. The self-portrait second is introspective and quiet. Beyond that, I can't say any more.

Erwin Stein first argued convincingly of the influence of Schoenberg's first chamber symphony on Britten's Sinfonietta. I would modify that a bit and say that Schoenberg's tonal output of the 1900s influenced Britten. Keep in mind that Britten hasn't even reached his twenties, and he's already making something fruitful and individual from the "advanced" music of Europe. All the ideas of all three of its movements link together in its opening paragraphs, as in Beethoven's fourth piano concerto, and constant motific variation is the key procedure. The sonority - bright, brittle, and above all clear - lies worlds away from Schoenberg's lushness, much more in the neighborhood of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Hindemith's Kammermusiken. I prefer the chamber orchestra version (expanded strings and a second horn) to the original ten-piece group, which has always sounded a little dry to me.

Young Apollo has received other recordings, most notably from Rattle and Birmingham on their 2-CD Britten boxed set, EMI 54270, but hasn't yet become a bona fide hit. God knows why. One of the composer's most gorgeous works, Britten wrote it on commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation while he lived in North America in the late Thirties and early Forties. Its unusual scoring features a piano and string quartet against a string orchestra, and so sure is Britten's touch that the three groups create three separate planes of sound throughout. It premièred with the composer at the piano, apparently to great success. Despite this, for some reason he withdrew the score, but perhaps ambivalent, he did not remove the opus number (16) and assign it to another work. Inspired by the end of Keats's Hyperion fragment and "by such sunshine as I've never seen before," Young Apollo apparently depicts the awakening of Apollo to the awareness of his own deity, to ecstatic music. Matthews points out something I wasn't aware of: its entire seven-minute length is in the key of A Major. Yet it pulses with brilliant invention and life.

The big news is the Double Concerto for violin and viola, from 1932 when Britten was roughly 19. It's a work so good, so masterful, you wonder why Britten chose to lose it. In the liner notes, Colin Matthews implies that Britten was unwilling to hand over the work to a student orchestra; apparently, they had butchered the première of his Sinfonietta. Matthews "realized" the orchestration but claims that Britten's instrumental indications in the score were so precise that the result is "virtually 100% Britten." Why Britten wouldn't have brought it out later, however, remains mysterious. The work doesn't go as far as the Sinfonietta in the concision of its material - each movement has its own ideas, for the most part - and the string sonorities are more conventional than even those of the earlier Two Portraits. The work ends with a headlong finale, which almost imperceptively switches gears and ends with quiet recalls of the first movement material. It's still not, perhaps, the Britten we know, but I don't hesitate to call it profound and deeply expressive. If you're at all a fan of the composer, this disc falls into the category of "must-have."

Nagano continues to show his rapport with the composer, with sympathetic (perhaps even empathic) readings of the Two Portraits and the Sinfonietta (simply, the best recorded performance I've heard). I prefer Rattle in Young Apollo - even more brilliant. I need to hear others in the Double Concerto. Although Nagano, Bashmet, and Kremer ably champion this work, I sense room for an even greater performance. The sound is clear and alive without suggesting elvish tweaks at the mixing board after the fact.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz