About this Recording
8.557197 - BRITTEN: Piano Concerto / Johnson Over Jordan Suite
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Paul Bunyan Overture • Piano Concerto • Johnson Over Jordan (Suite)

Of the large number of works that Britten composed during his three-year stay in America from 1939-42, undoubtedly the most ambitious and substantial was Paul Bunyan, the ‘choral operetta’ based on the giant lumberjack of American myth that he wrote in collaboration with the poet W.H. Auden. Troubled by dramatic flaws and the negative reviews of several critics, Britten withdrew the work after the first run of performances in New York in 1941 and it was only revived (with a few modifications) in 1976. For the original production, Britten had composed an overture to the work, but this was dropped before the show even opened. It remained in piano score only and it would appear that Britten never got round to orchestrating it. In 1977, the composer Colin Matthews, who had worked as Britten’s amanuensis during the composer’s final years, orchestrated the Overture from the existing two-piano draft, in which form it now stands as an independent concert item. The Overture’s majestic opening music is taken from the opening of the second act of the operetta where it accompanies Bunyan’s ‘Good Morning’ to his loggermen (Matthews has here used Britten’s own orchestration), while the birdsong that begins the first act provides much of the basic material for the fast section that follows, the busily contrapuntal textures anticipating the famous fugue in the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra composed some four years later.

The Piano Concerto, Op. 13, was written during the spring of 1938 and was originally designated ‘No. 1’. It was, however, to be Britten’s only example of the form (though mention should be made of the Diversions, Op. 21, for piano (left-hand) and orchestra, written for Paul Wittgenstein in 1940). The concerto, dedicated to the composer Lennox Berkeley, was written as a vehicle for Britten’s own skills as a pianist and was first performed with him as soloist at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert at the Queen’s Hall, London, in August 1938. In the programme note for that occasion Britten stated that the work was ‘conceived with the idea of exploiting various important characteristics of the pianoforte, such as its enormous compass, its percussive quality, and its suitability for figuration; so that it is not by any means a Symphony with pianoforte, but rather a bravura Concerto with orchestral accompaniment’. The four movements have titles which may suggest a work of suite or divertimento-like character: Toccata, Waltz, Impromptu and March. The work is tightly constructed, however, with various cross-relationships between the movements helping to bind it together. The opening Toccata is a conventional sonata-form structure with two clearly defined subjects, the first played by the soloist in martellato octaves over pulsating chords in the wind while the second subject is a more sustained, lyrical theme first heard on the strings and subsequently passed to the woodwind. Dividing these is an arresting fanfare-like motif on the brass based on two alternating chords, an idea which will recur in various altered guises throughout the work. After the cadenza Britten provides formal resolution by superimposing the second subject, played tranquillo on the piano, over a version of the first played on pizzicato lower strings and harp in augmentation, a characteristic recapitulatory device that he also employed in the first movements of the Sinfonietta, the Violin Concerto and the Second String Quartet. The Waltz is clearly an exercise in the ironic, satirical vein that Britten had already exploited in works such as the Frank Bridge Variations. After a quiet fourth on two muted horns, a solo viola proposes the elegant waltz theme, subsequently extended by the clarinet. The piano enters with a quiet version of the fanfare before taking over the waltz tune amid much bizarre accompanimental detail from the orchestra. A contrasting trio section includes an extraordinary staccato tutti passage played pianissimo with prominent glockenspiel and col legno strings before the waltz returns fortissimo, followed by a quiet coda in which the horn’s fourth is shown to be directly related to the fanfare. The theme of the Impromptu, composed in 1945 to replace the original Recitative and Aria, is actually taken from the incidental music that Britten had composed for the radio play King Arthur in April 1937. First stated simply on the piano, it then forms the basis for a series of variations in the orchestra, to which the soloist adds suitable embellishments. The final March has a brash swagger that, in all likelihood, is another of Britten’s musical responses to the approaching threat of the Second World War, the deliberately banal main theme carrying more than a suggestion of Shostakovich (as well as some of the more militaristic of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs such as Revelge). A more relaxed central episode helps ease the tension, but the piano uses the fanfare idea to build a slow crescendo – bass drum with attached cymbals providing rhythmic support – before the main theme reappears triumphantly in a grandiose D major peroration. Reminiscences of the first movement provide a final unifying gesture before the work comes to its curt and grimly determined conclusion.

The version of the Piano Concerto that is commonly performed today is the revised one that Britten prepared in 1945, substituting the Recitative and Aria with the newly composed Impromptu. This disc, however, includes a rare recording of the original third movement, thus offering the option of hearing the work as Britten first envisioned it.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, in addition to writing those more substantial works by which he would be judged by posterity, Britten supplemented his income by writing a copious amount of incidental music for radio, stage and film. His technical prowess and phenomenal facility, combined with a strongly ingrained work ethic, meant that he was able to produce highquality music at great speed. Although he could be rather dismissive of this music in later life, no doubt regarding it as little more than hack-work, since his death in 1976 a number of these scores have been published and performed shedding valuable light on a hitherto unknown area of his output. His score for the J.B. Priestley play Johnson over Jordan was composed during February 1939. In three acts and featuring some 35 minutes worth of music, this was one of the longest commercial theatre scores that Britten ever produced. The story revolves around the character of Robert Johnson who, as the play opens, has recently died. We then see scenes from his life in reverse, culminating in the moment when he must be released from the purgatory-like state known as ‘Bardo’ and say farewell to everything he knows. The first performance was given on 22nd February, 1939, at the New Theatre, London, directed by Basil Dean with Ralph Richardson in the title rôle. After a short time it transferred to the Saville Theatre where it enjoyed a relatively successful run, to which Britten’s music made a significant contribution. The suite heard on the present recording was compiled by Paul Hindmarsh in 1990 and first performed in a BBC Radio 3 broadcast with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Odaline de la Martinez. The Overture is framed by the sinister ‘death’ motif which plays a crucial rôle throughout the score. The Incinerator’s Ballet originally accompanied a scene in which bags of banknotes, symbols of greed and avarice, were ceremoniously burned (listeners familiar with the aforementioned Diversions will note that Britten redeployed some of the thematic material in the March from that work). This is followed by The Spider and the Fly, an irresistible 1930s dance-band number written to accompany a night-club scene. Finally, the End Music develops the ‘death’ motif, culminating in a radiant D major apotheosis in which Johnson is finally liberated from earthly life and set free into an all-embracing cosmos of sky and stars.

Lloyd Moore

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