About this Recording
8.553882 - BRITTEN: Violin Concerto / Cello Symphony

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto; Cello Symphony

What's in a name? Is it just piquant coincidence that one of Britain's greatest composers was called – Britten? Benjamin Britten's beloved mother certainly saw significance in her married surname: extolling the 'three Bs' – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – she was 'determined' the fourth would be Britten. Benjamin was her fourth child, born, auspiciously, on November 22nd – St Cecilia's Day, feast day of the patron saint of music.

The future composer's childhood home faced the North Sea in Lowestoft, the most easterly town in Britain. Britten loved his native Suffolk, feeling 'firmly rooted in this glorious county'; he could have added the words of fisherman Peter Grimes in his most famous opera '…by familiar fields, marsh and sand, ordinary streets, prevailing wind'. What drew Britten and his lover and muse, the tenor Peter Pears, back from their new life in America in the early 1940s? Britten's rediscovery of the Suffolk poet George Crabbe, whose The Borough inspired Peter Grimes. Where did Britten and Pears settle? That very 'Borough', Aldeburgh, another Suffolk coastal town which, thanks to Britten, has been home since 1948 to one of Britain's finest music festivals. He found 'working becomes more and more difficult away from that home'.

A quintessentially English, provincial composer, then? Far from it. After Britten's death The Times acclaimed him 'the first British composer to capture and hold the attention of musicians and their audiences the world over'. Britten's technical brilliance and openness to continental trends distinguished him from the start. In the 1920s the precocious 13-year-old – pianist, viola-player and already prolific composer (shades of Mozart) – was fortunate to find a composition teacher in Frank Bridge, virtually the only British composer with a sympathy for the central European avant-garde of Schoenberg, Berg and Bartók, or neo-classical Stravinsky. To those models Britten added Mahler and Shostakovich. No wonder the conservative Royal College of Music, which he attended from 1930, suffered culture shock, especially when Britten proposed to use a travel grant to study with Berg. (He didn't).

The mainstay of Britten's international appeal is the stream of operatic masterpieces initiated by Peter Grimes in 1945; but they, and his other Pears-inspired vocal music, mask further important creative strands: pieces for young people and instrumental music. True, for a decade in mid-career Britten wrote practically nothing substantial without voices; but before Grimes his chamber and orchestral compositions outnumbered vocal works two to one; and after 1960 musical friendships revitalised that interest. This recording couples products of both 'instrumental' periods – kindred pieces, sharing Britten's conviction that each (when he wrote it) was his finest, and roots in his rapport with particular soloists.

The Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa met Britten through Frank Bridge in the early thirties; following the Suite, Op. 6, the Violin Concerto (1938-9, revised 1950s) was the second Britten piece Brosa premièred – in 1940, Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Started during the Spanish Civil War, finished four weeks into the Second World War – when the pacifist Britten wrote, 'it's at times like these that work is so important, that humans can think of other things than blowing each other up' – the music is 'rather serious, I'm afraid'. Its dark mood and tripartite structure, virtuosic scherzo flanked by more lyrical movements, suggest another British violin concerto from 1938-9 first heard in the non-combatant U.S.A. – Walton's; Britten's initial drum motif (a 'Spanish rhythm', Brosa said) suggests a violin concerto classic – Beethoven's. This rhythm survives the first movement's struggle, the violin's meditative opening melody triumphing over its biting, would-be-military second theme. Wild, brilliantly-orchestrated, the scherzo hints at Prokofiev, Shostakovich, even – in a flash of fantasy for two piccolos plus tuba – Berlioz. Reconciling earlier conflict, the Cadenza launches the Passacaglia, first of what became a favourite Britten form, unfolding over a repeated bass – 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 expressive forms not fully realized until the Cello Symphony.'

By consensus Britten's orchestral zenith, the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (1963) recreates the Cadenza-Passacaglia conclusion and focus on D; its inspiration, dedicatee, champion, was the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich's British première of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 in 1960 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 performer save Pears: a sonata, three unaccompanied suites (recorded by Tim Hugh on Naxos 8.553663) and this 'Symphony'. Not 'Concerto': witness its four-movement form, scant conventional solo virtuosity, and character: 'an argument on equal terms', Britten said – like Frank Bridge's cello and orchestra Oration. Premièred, appropriately, in Moscow, the Cello Symphony epitomises Britten's new stylistic economy following his kaleidoscopic opera A Midsummer Night's Dream and all-embracing War Requiem (Naxos 8.553558-59): everything grows from the simplest intervals – seconds, thirds. Contrabassoon, tuba, double basses, percussion below, keening woodwind above, the cello speaks freely, eloquently. The eerie scherzo's ceaseless evolution contrasts with the (for Britten) unusually strict sonata-form first movement, but redoubles its tragic drama. The profound slow movement and Cadenza's common themes germinate the Passacaglia's solo-led repeating bass and brilliant D major trumpet melody, which kindle the glorious final apotheosis: darkness into light.

David Gallagher

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