Listening to Britten – Etude for solo viola


Gresham’s Senior Prep (c) Evelyn Simak

Etude for solo viola (18 February 1929, Britten aged 15)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’30”

Audio and Notation

The notation for the Etude, together with a recording made by Henrietta Hill, can be found as part of the Britten Thematic Catalogue entry for the work.

Background and Critical Reception

The Etude is a recently discovered and recorded work of Britten’s that was composed at Gresham’s, just one day before the song Lilian. He arranged the piece for violin just over a month later.

Matthew Jones recorded the Etude as part of his Reflections disc for Naxos, issued in the Britten 100 year. In a review of the disc, Classics Today’s David Vernier describes the piece as ‘an ambitious work by any standard, but especially for a 15-year-old who presumably was able not only to write it but to play it’.

Thoughts

Britten’s first available published piece for viola is set in the key of C major, making the most of the viola’s bottom string.

It is a busy and brisk piece that chugs along with full bodied chords, a waltz that has a surprisingly catchy theme. After some tricky passagework a calmer section moves the music into G major and brighter writing, before the main thematic material comes back and we turn for home – and an emphatic, rather grand ending.

Recordings used

Matthew Jones (viola) (Naxos)

Jones negotiates the tricky passages in more than one part with relative ease, and although the recording is a little dry his is an extremely effective performance.

Spotify

Not yet available.

Also written in 1930: Villa-Lobos – 12 Etudes for guitar

Next up: Miniature Suite for string quartet

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Listening to Britten – Oh Take Those Lips Away


Belle Vue Park and Yarmouth Road area, Lowestoft, 1926 – image courtesy of the Britain From Above website

Oh Take Those Lips Away – song for voice and piano (12 November 1926, Britten aged 12)

Text William Shakespeare
Language English
Duration 1′

Background and Critical Reception

Even on the verge of his teens Britten wrote best when he had a specific performer in mind. At this stage that ‘performer’ was his own mother, who Philip Reed describes as ‘never more than a good amateur musician’, but he goes on to note that ‘her constant encouragement of her youngest son brought from him a significant quantity of songs, most of which remain unpublished’.

This very early Shakespeare setting is a recent edition, and Reed’s words are from the booklet note accompanying its first recording on the second volume of a new Onyx series of the songs. The setting, from Measure for Measure, was published on 12 November 1926, just ten days before the fledgling composer’s thirteenth birthday.

It marks the first recorded encounter of Britten with Shakespeare – a series that, while not as plentiful as other textual sources, did nonetheless yield a number of short songs, music for King Arthur and the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Thoughts

A brief but meaningful song that begins with trills from the piano and a stately introduction, before the tenor sings a bright line over the top.

Britten places extra emphasis on the phrase ‘songs of love’, the last word held out at a louder dynamic – and this phrase leaves the longest impression in the mind.

Recordings used

Robin Tritschler (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (world premiere recording) (Onyx)

Tritschler sings very clearly, while Martineau’s punctuation on the piano is ideally judged.

Spotify

Not an easy one to find, though it is under the name of Song, here

Also written in 1926: Sæverud – Symphony in B flat minor

Next up: Etude for viola

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Listening to Britten – Valse in B major


The church of St Peter, Lowestoft, in the early 1920s. Photo used courtesy of the Suffolk Churches website

Valse in B major for violin and piano (4 October 1925, Britten aged 11)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’30”

Background and Critical Reception

The Britten Thematic catalogue lists the Valse as a violin and piano version of Untitled piece in B major, which itself appears to have been another piece labelled with the deliberately incorrect title of Walzt. The catalogue goes on to link the melody of the piece to the later Simple Symphony.

Other than that not much is known about this piece of juvenilia, completed when Britten was on the verge of turning 12. It has only recently received a first recording, from the violinist Matthew Jones, whose self-penned CD booklet does not refer to the piece explicitly.

Thoughts

The Valse is a graceful and slightly melancholic piece, one that suggests Britten has been listening to some Schubert but also implying a more romantic source – Kreisler, perhaps. The violin writing is rich, with many instances of multiple stopped notes, so effectively the piece is in three parts.

The lilting contours of the piece also suggest a watery theme, which for a composer not yet in his teens is already pleasingly advanced.

Recordings used

Matthew Jones (violin), Annabel Thwaite (piano) (Naxos)

In the first recording of the Valse, Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite give an eloquent and affectionate performance, tailing off rather nicely at the end.

Given the difficulty of the key of B major for string players, Jones’ tuning is extremely good.

Spotify

The new recording from Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite is not available on Spotify – but further details can be found on the Naxos website.

Also written in 1926: Krenek – Johnny spielt auf

Next up: Oh Take Those Lips Away

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Britten on Record: Schubert: Violin Sonata in A major, D574

Britten on Record: Schubert: Violin Sonata in A major, D574 (BBC Legends)

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Benjamin Britten (piano)

Live recording: Aldeburgh Church, Aldeburgh, 27 June 1959

1 Allegro moderato
2 Scherzo
3 Andantino
4 Allegro vivace

Audio

Clips from the performance can be heard at the All Music website.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s performances of Schubert were not just confined to the songs with Peter Pears, for in the course of Britten on Record we will encounter him in partnership with Mstislav Rstropovich and also Sviatoslav Richter in the composer’s music.

On this occasion he joined Yehudi Menuhin in the second of two Schubert works performed by the pair (the Fantasy is also available)and released on BBC Legends. This one dates from the same Aldeburgh Festival concert as works by Debussy and Haydn reviewed separately.

Thoughts

The first movement of this sizable piece unfolds with an unhurried grace, thanks in no small part to Britten’s control of the subtle contours of the left hand melody on the piano.

Menuhin’s tone is unfailing and consistent, sustaining the arguments of the first movement, while in the second movement, a Scherzo, Britten’s lightness of touch is the defining factor, despite an unfortunate wrong note near the end.

Throughout the piece there is a beautiful poise that both players bring to the music, capturing beautiful the slightly sorrowful air that can encroach into Schubert’s music at times – but also the resolute faster music, which brings more definite optimism.

Spotify

The performance can be heard on Spotify, as part of a different album release, by clicking here.

Also recorded in 1959: Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, Op.37 (Glenn Gould, Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein) (Columbia)

Next up: Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

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Britten on Record: Debussy: Sonata for piano and violin in G minor

Britten on Record: Debussy: Sonata for piano and violin in G minor (BBC Legends)

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Benjamin Britten (piano)

Live recording: Aldeburgh Church, Aldeburgh, 27 June 1959

1 Allegro vivo
2 Intermède: Fantasque et léger
3 Finale: Très animé

Audio

Clips from the performance can be heard at the All Music website.

Background and Critical Reception

As part of their 1959 Aldeburgh Festival concert, from which we have already appraised performances of Haydn and Schubert, Britten and Yehudi Menuhin performed the Violin Sonata by Debussy. This must have been poignant to Britten, for this wartime work was among the music performed by the pair on their visit to the concentration camp in Belsen in 1945.

This is widely regarded as a turning point in Britten’s life, affecting heavily the music he composed after the experience – which began with The Holy Sonnets of John Donne.
Debussy was a composer for whom Britten retained strong admiration. He studied L’isle joyeuse for his ARCM exam in 1933, while his teacher Frank Bridge gave him a score of Pelléas et Mélisande for his 21st birthday. Recorded instances of Britten performing Debussy are however limited, as we will discover – but they are of exceptional quality, performed as they are with Mstislav Rostropovich (the Cello Sonata), Sviatoslav Richter (En blanc et noir) and the English Chamber Orchestra (Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune).

Thoughts

As outlined in previous reviews of this disc, the sound quality is a little scratchy (the original, not the remaster) but that still does not prevent an enjoyment of the keen emotion Britten and Menuhin bring to this piece.

The sonata is quite an elusive piece, portraying the uncertainty of war, and the two performers get to the nub of the second movement’s nervous tension in particular. Menuhin’s variation of tone is extremely notable, his technique outstanding in the flourishes that begin the finale, and Britten responds in kind. Tempi are relatively relaxed for a reading of this work, but there is no compromise in overall feeling, despite the extraneous audience noise.

Spotify

The performance can be heard on Spotify, as part of a different album release, by clicking here.

Also recorded in 1959: Copland – Rodeo (New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein) (Columbia)

Next up: Schubert: Violin Sonata in A major D574

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Britten on Record: Haydn: Sonata for piano and violin in G major

Britten on Record: Haydn: Sonata for piano and violin in G major (BBC Legends)

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Benjamin Britten (piano)

Live recording: Aldeburgh Church, Aldeburgh, 27 June 1959

1 Andante
2 Allegro

Audio

Clips from the performance can be heard at the All Music website.

Background and Critical Reception

Haydn is not the first composer that comes to mind in consideration of the classical violin sonata – but Yehudi Menuhin and Benjamin Britten practically introduced him to that category by way of a transcription the composer made of one of his piano trios, in G major (Hob.XV:32).

In much of his piano trio writing Haydn would double the piano left hand with the cello line, so removing the cello from the equation did not make as dramatic a change as might be expected in this instance. Britten and Menuhin chose this to begin their 1959 Aldeburgh Festival recital on June 27 in Aldeburgh Church.

Thoughts

The easy, amiable nature of the first movement makes this piece an ideal start for a concert, from which point it broadens out into a theme and some variations – one of Britten’s favourite formats of composition. There follows an engaging Allegro, both performers giving a bright account of their respective parts.

The sound is not the greatest – but it would seem this is due to the condition of the original tapes rather than the remastering process.

Spotify

The performance can be heard on Spotify, as part of a different album release, by clicking here.

Also recorded in 1959: Puccini – La bohème (Renata Tebaldi (Mimi), Carlo Bergonzi (Rodolfo), Saint Cecilia Academy Orchestra / Tullio Serafin) (Decca)

Next up: Debussy: Sonata for violin and piano in G minor

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Britten on Record: Schubert – Die Taubenpost; Der Einsame; An die Laute; Harfenspieler I; Der Musensohn; Du bist die Ruh; Geheimes; Die Stadt

Britten on Record: Schubert – Die Taubenpost; Der Einsame; An die Laute; Harfenspieler I; Der Musensohn; Du bist die Ruh; Geheimes; Die Stadt (Decca)

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano)

Studio recording: Unknown venue, 29 April 1959

Die Taubenpost D957/14
Der Einsame D800
An die Laute D905
Harfenspieler I D478
Der Musensohn D764
Du bist die Ruh D776
Geheimes D719
Die Stadt D957/11

Background and Critical Reception

Some more studio recordings of Peter Pears and Britten in individual Schubert Lieder, in which they revisit a number of songs first set down on record in 1954.

Thoughts

This selection begins with Die Taubenpost, often performed as an epilogue to Schwanengesang and speculated to be Schubert’s final song. It is my personal favourite in the composer’s output (so far at least!), and here enjoys an affectionate performance, with the payoff between Pears’ phrase and Britten’s twinkling right hand figure – depicting the messenger pigeon – one to savour.

Britten and Pears’ second recording for Decca of Der Einsame is very slightly quicker, and has a pronounced lean on the left hand in Britten’s figurations.

The charming An die Laute is next, the lightest of waltzes, before its polar opposite, Harfenspieler I, Pears drawing himself up to his full height to deliver the declamatory opening. It is a stern, proud song. Another version of Der Musensohn trips along, while a second account of Du bist die Ruh (again the first was in 1954, also for Decca) again reaches rapturous levels of intensity as Pears works his way gradually to the highest note, hovering with impeccable control.

The eight-song selection ends with Geheimes and finally an excerpt from towards the end of Schwanengesang. Die Stadt is one of the cycle’s darkest songs, and Britten’s piano sends a chill through the blood with the quick rise and fall of the right hand. Both performers seem to have Mahler in mind as the song reaches its gruesome climax.

Spotify

Not available on Spotify.

Also recorded in 1959: Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (Columbia)

Next up: Haydn – Violin Sonata in G major Hob.XV:32

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