Listening to Britten – Lachrymae, Op.48a

Marsh harrier (c) Graham Catley, whose rather wonderful blog Pewit can be found here

Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of John Dowland op. 48a for viola and orchestra (16 May 1950, arranged February 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Cecil Aronowitz
Duration 13′

Audio clips

Dowland’s song If my complaints could passions move, performed by Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Kenny. With thanks to Hyperion:

A clip of the recording made by Laurence Power and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov can be heard on the Hyperion website.

Background and Critical Reception

The original version of Lachrymae, for viola and piano, dates from 1950, marking the first fruits of Britten’s lengthy spell of the music of John Dowland. He was to perform many of the songs in partnership with Peter Pears, but also took Dowland’s music as the starting point for the Nocturnal for guitar in 1963. Both works are effectively Variations and a Theme, with the theme almost the last melody to appear in each case. For Lachrymae Britten uses Dowland’s song If my complaints could passions move as the source of his musical material.

In the last year of his life Britten orchestrated the piano part, so that the viola player Cecil Aronowitz could perform it as a concert piece with strings. Careful to ensure the solo viola retained the prominence it had in the original, he chose not to use any violins in the orchestra.


Britten’s recasting of Lachrymae is an unmitigated triumph, turning what was already an accomplished piece into one of the finest ‘concertante’ pieces in existence for the viola. The colours of his ‘home’ instrument continue to be brilliantly exploited, but with the added colours of the string orchestra available to him Britten adds extra depth and perspective to the piece.
In this version the pizzicato variation sends shivers down the spine, with the ghostly harmonics of the orchestra in the middle background, and it sounds like fully fledged film music. There is a real frisson throughout, and it’s tempting to view it the music once again as standing between one life and another, as if in a dream state.

In the third variation the music shimmers in the half light, while the shaded harmonics of the fifth uncannily evoke shafts of moonlight in fog. The tremolo on the viola as the theme approaches in its fullest state is truly formidable, especially with a full string orchestra behind it, while the theme itself is baleful, rather sorrowful, and incredibly moving. The sudden plain speaking of the Dowland quotation is something of a shock to the ear, and nothing can follow it.

Recordings used

Maxim Rysanov, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Lars Anders Tomter, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra / Iona Brown (Virgin Classics)
Philip Dukes, Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)
Lawrence Power, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (Hyperion)
Catherine Bullock, Camerata Nordica / Terje Tennesen (BIS)
Roger Chase, Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (Hyperion)

Rysanov and Gardner harness some impressive raw power in their version, and there is a heft and a bite to the BBC SO strings that will make the listener baulk (in a good way!). Lars Anders Tomter and Iona Brown also present a version of high intensity, though theirs has a leaner sound.

Lawrence Power and Ilan Volkov are another highly strung alternative, part of an excellent disc that includes the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto, while Roger Chase and the Nash Ensemble offer a smaller scale account, though no less probing – and with some very enjoyable


This playlist offers versions of Lachrymae from Philip Dukes and the Northern Sinfonia, Ross Pople and Douglas Boyd with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

Also written in 1976: Maxwell Davies – The Martyrdom of St Magnus

Next up: Lord! I married me a wife

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Listening to Britten – Tema ‘SACHER’

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Tema SACHER (5 January 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication For Paul Sacher at the invitation of Mstislav Rostropovich
Duration 1′


The beginning of a recent recording of Tema SACHER made by Alban Gerhardt can be heard here.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten may have been losing his health – and had essentially committed his final personal thoughts to music in the String Quartet no.3 – but he continued as a fully functioning composer right up to the end of his life.

The year 1976 was therefore a surprisingly productive one, though by nature the music he was writing became more modest in its dimensions. Mstislav Rostropovich, ever persuasive, wanted him to be part of a multi-composer project to honour the seventieth birthday of Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, who had conducted the premiere of the Cantata Misericordium and showed great political support for the cellist.

Sacher’s name – when interpreted in German – handily translates into the musical notations of Eb (S) – A – C – B natural (H) – E and D (Re). Britten’s contribution to the project was the theme itself. The project was to be a set of variations – but ended up as a series of several short pieces. The full list of works submitted by the other eleven composers is:

Conrad Beck – Für Paul Sacher : Drei Epigramme für Violoncello solo

Berio – Les Mots sont allés

Boulez – Messagesquisse (for 7 cellos)

Dutilleux – Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher

Wolfgang Fortner – Zum Spielen für den 70. Geburtstag : Thema und Variationen

Ginastera – Puneña n° 2

Cristóbal Halffter – Variationen über das Thema eSACHERe

Henze – Capriccio per Paul Sacher

Heinz Holliger – Chaconne

Klaus Huber – Transpositio ad infinitum

Lutosławski – Sacher Variationen


Although this is essentially a footnote to Britten’s output for cello it is nonetheless intriguing, and does not shirk at all on intensity.

Britten makes the theme itself a dramatic fanfare using chords on the cello as a display of raw power. The feeling persists that it is the beginning of a potential Cello Suite no.4, but sadly that notion has to be filed in the box marked ‘what might have been’.

Recordings used

Alban Gerhardt (Hyperion)
Alisa Weilerstein (Decca)

Alban Gerhardt and Alisa Weilerstein give very different performances. Weilerstein really climbs into her version with a frightening intensity, the passages of double stopping right on the edge. Gerhardt has more control, his smoother version more obviously an affectionate tribute.

Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the version by Thomas Demenga on ECM – given as part of a set that brings together all the work commissioned by Rostropovich for the occasion. Further information can be found here.



Also written in 1976: Dutilleux – Ainsi la nuit

Next up: Lachrymae, Op.48a

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Britten on Record: Schubert: Die Sterne D939; Nachtviolen D752; Auflösung D807

Britten on Record: Schubert: Die Sterne D939; Nachtviolen D752; Auflösung D807 (BBC Legends: Britten The Performer)

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano)

Live recording: Aldeburgh Festival – Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, 15 June 1958

Die Sterne D939
Nachtviolen D752
Auflösung D807


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

Background and Critical Reception

It is such a shame that the Britten the performer series is not readily available from the BBC at the moment, for it was something of a revelation when released in the late 1990s. Happily second-hand discs can be found by looking on the internet, but it was a shortcoming of the centenary year that nobody was able to make them publicly available again.

One of the benefits of the series are its booklets, beautifully illustrated and annotated. In this one, the pianist Roger Vignoles talks about Britten’s abilities as a pianist, but also notes how Pears was in the form of his life at the time these Schubert songs were recorded.

‘Pears and Britten evoke the nocturnal intimacy of Nachtviolen and Die Sterne‘, he writes, ‘and bring a breathless, febrile intensity to the cosmic imagery of Auflösung‘.


A relatively sombre selection with which to begin their recital. Britten and Pears begin with Die sterne, a song whose subtleties are beautifully communicated by the partnership. Britten’s shadowing of the tenor’s melody at the end of a line is sublime, his linking of the verses literally keeping the vocal style going.

The second song is quite introverted, Britten inhabiting that unusually timeless world of later Schubert with great sensitivity . Pears is thoughtful too, and his higher register is faultless, despite a slowing in tempo.

Pears himself is at his peak in these songs, as Vignoles says, able to float his voice with mellifluous tone. Auflösung, the final song, finds a deeper intensity, Britten’s piano playing seemingly taking us to the water’s edge, but Pears finding an impressive depth at the climax.


Not available.

Also recorded in 1958: Beethoven – Mass in C, Op.86 (Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Monica Sinclair (contralto), Richard Lewis (tenor), Marian Norakowski (bass), Beecham Choral Society, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI)

Next up: Schumann – Liederkreis, Op.39

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Listening to Britten – String Quartet no.3, Op.94

(c) Brian Hogwood

String Quartet No.3, Op.94 (October – 20 November 1975, Britten aged 61)

1 Duets: With moderate movement
2 Ostinato: Very fast
3 Solo: Very calm
4 Burlesque: Fast, con fuoco
5 Recitative and Passacaglia

Dedication Hans Keller
Duration 28′


Clips from each of the five movements can be heard on the Hyperion website, using the new recording from the Takács String Quartet on Hyperion.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s third numbered string quartet – his fifth and last to be published in the medium – is a direct product of the composer’s ailing health in 1975. With his capacity for work dwindling but not unbowed, it was suggested to him – in all seriousness by his friend Hans Keller – that if he wrote for less staves on the manuscript score he would be able to write more music.

He therefore completed a dedication for his friend, but as Keller recounts in his recent book, Britten: Essays, Letters and Opera Guides, the thought had been in his mind for some while. After a protracted discussion on form and sonata structure, Britten said to his friend, ‘One day, I’ll write a string quartet for you’. What he completed is something of a Divertimento – a wide ranging term that can apply from a short multi-movement piece to something as substantial as Mozart’s Divertimento for string trio, K563. The implication is that Britten wanted the freedom the form gave him.

With the Amadeus Quartet already enthusiastic exponents of his work, Britten took up the challenge with the help of the group and his assistant, composer Colin Matthews, who helped write much of the music from the piano. Although the Amadeus and Britten ran through the piece in private, he did not live to hear the public’s thoughts on the piece, for the premiere took place just over two weeks after his death.

The last movement of the quartet was written in its entirety in Venice, where Britten was still well enough to go on holiday, and perhaps inevitably it takes its lead from Death in Venice for its musical material. These are thought to be a present in musical form for Peter Pears. The final chord was a matter of some conjecture, and Britten changed it – for in the words of Colin Matthews, he wanted the work to ‘end on a question’.

Writing in Tempo, Colin’s brother David Matthews declared, ‘The two earlier quartets had been among his finest instrumental works; the Third is their equal in invention, and in range and depth of expression their superior.’

He praises the stylistic invention in the trio sections of the second and fourth movements, but reserves special praise for the third movement of the ‘arch’ form. ‘The slow movement, again tripartite, is a rapt violin solo, at first with the simplest of single-line accompaniments; then breaking out into a fantastic cadenza; finally suspended above a shimmer of harmonics from the other three instruments. This last section is the consummation of all Britten’s C major music: it is utterly simple, and profoundly moving.’

John Bridcut also homes in on this movement in his appraisal of the quartet. ‘It’s not often that one of a composer’s final utterances holds the key for a newcomer to unlock his music, but ‘Solo’, as it is called, does just that. It features a long, haunting, cantilena from the first violin, interrupted by the sweetest birdsong, while his three colleagues produce otherworldly sounds from a mixture of harmonics, pizzicatos, glissandos, arpeggios and trills. With such a rich sound palette, it is hard to believe it is a string quartet – you could swear there are wind instruments here, and others not yet invented.’


The third string quartet finds Britten standing literally at the gateway between life and death. He was fully aware by this time that recovery of health would be denied him, and instead channelled his remaining energy into the completion of the quartet. Helped by Hans Keller and Colin Matthews, and fired by the Amadeus Quartet, he had all the encouragement he needed – and what results is one of his very finest works, a suitable high on which to complete his instrumental writing.

In this work Britten picks up where Death in Venice left off, the first violin using the same conversational style that Britten assigned to Aschenbach, painting also a picture of the undulating waters of the city’s canals. There is an intense period of contemplation that runs through the odd numbered movements of this five-movement piece, and when the violin takes the lead in the Solo, it does so as a leader in prayer and meditation. Either side of this moving section are two gruff, defiant scherzos, Britten writing closer to the style of Shostakovich but seeming also to shake his fist at the approach of Death.

The final movement has perhaps the strongest sense of inevitability in late Britten. A Passacaglia, naturally, it is both sure footed and sublime, every repetition of the gently rising phrase feeling like a slow but sure step towards another world. That it ends on a question is something of a masterstroke, for after the serenity of the E major chord is realised in harmonics, Britten still has questions in his life and beliefs that remain unanswered. Ending on the ambiguous chord speaks volumes.

The third quartet, then, is where Britten officially takes his leave. A handful of works would follow, but this is the moment where he gives up his soul, in music of affecting beauty. The last movement ensures he leaves with his head held high, innovating and captivating to the very end.


Amadeus String Quartet (Testament)


Amadeus String Quartet (Decca)
Endellion String Quartet (EMI)
Belcea String Quartet (EMI)
Maggini String Quartet (Naxos)
Sorrel String Quartet (Chandos)
Emperor Quartet (BIS)
Endellion String Quartet (Warner Classics)

Valuable footage exists of the Amadeus Quartet performing the String Quartet no.3 at Aldeburgh in 1977, preserved by Testament in the company of Schubert’s String Quintet, performed at the same concert with William Pleeth.

The Solo is completely captivating, the camera spending almost the entirety of the movement focussed on violinist Norbert Brainin, as it does on Peter Schidlof in the moving viola solo of the final movement.

The Amadeus Quartet also recorded the third quartet for Decca, an authoritative and deeply moving account that stands right at the front of some fine interpretations. Also of great importance are the recordings from the Endellion and Alberni Quartets, for a long time the only other two versions to be found. More recently the Endellion committed a new version to disc for Warner Classics, though for me the EMI remains superior.

There are also strong digital versions from the Sorrel, Maggini, Belcea and Emperor Quartets, all benefiting from excellent engineering, but it is the Amadeus and the first Endellion version to which I would return most frequently.


The following playlist for the Third String Quartet brings together the version by the Amadeus Quartet with the Belcea, Maggini and the most recent Endellion version.

Also written in 1975: Shostakovich: Viola Sonata

Next up: Tema ‘Sacher’

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Britten on Record: Schubert: Fantasy in C major, D934

Britten on Record: Schubert: Fantasy in C major, D934 (BBC Legends)

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Benjamin Britten (piano)

Live recording: Aldeburgh Festival – Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh, 16 June 1957

Andante molto –
Allegretto –
Andantino –
Tempo I – Allegro vivace


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

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s friendship with Yehudi Menuhin was cemented by July 1945, when the pair travelled to Germany to give a recital tour. This included a visit to the Belsen concentration camp, where they gave a concert – an occasion that haunted Britten for many years to come and which certainly affected his stance on life and war itself. It also directly inspired The Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

John Bridcut’s Essential Britten includes an eyewitness account of the recital from Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a survivor of the camp. ‘It goes without saying that Menuhin played faultlessly; he is, after all, Yehudi Menuhin. As for the accompanist, I can only say that I cannot imagine anything done more beautifully. He was completely unobtrusive and yet I found myself transfixed by him sitting there as if he wouldn’t say boo to a goose – but playing to perfection’.

Later Britten and Menuhin were captured by the BBC in a pair of recitals from the Aldeburgh Festival, this account from 1957 of Schubert’s Fantasy, coupled with sonatas from Haydn, Debussy and Schubert in 1959.


The Fantasy approaches from the cold in this performance, with very quiet, dappled piano playing from Britten that is mirrored by that of his partner.

Some of Schubert’s later work is difficult to fully understand (for me at least!), and the Fantasy I find an elusive piece, though undeniably impressive – feelings that it seems were shared by the audiences of Schubert’s day, who found its length and structure a bit of a problem.

The work certainly has its attractive and meaningful moments though, especially the theme and variations at the centre – and two especially enjoyable parts of this performance are a skittish variation that Menuhin clearly enjoys, and a sparkling variation in A flat major with a torrent of notes for the piano’s right hand, to which Britten is the equal.

The opening pages appear to be cut adrift, even though the tonality is clearly C major, but by the time the music has reached the A minor second section there is some appealing call and response between Menuhin and Britten’s right hand.

Schubert wrote the Fantasy shortly after the completion of the song cycle Winterreise, possibly Britten’s favourite work by the composer – and one he and Pears would later record for Decca.


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

Also recorded in 1957: Delibes – Coppélia (Suisse Romande Orchestra / Ernest Ansermet) (Decca)

Next up: Schubert – Three Songs: Die Sterne D939; Nachtviolen D752; Auflosung D807

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Britten on Record: Mozart: Piano Concerto no.12 in A major, K414

Britten on Record: Mozart: Piano Concerto no.12 in A major, K414 (Decca)

Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (piano)

Live recording: Aldeburgh Festival – Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, 19 June 1956

1 Allegro
2 Andante
3 Allegretto

Background and Critical Reception

Mozart’s twelfth published piano concerto is one of the earliest to hold down a relatively regular place in the repertory. This is possibly on account of its flexibility, for the piece can be performed either with a full orchestra or with reduced forces of a string quartet only.

Not surprisingly Britten opts for the former in this recording from the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival, which appeared in the same Jubilee Hall concert as the Haydn symphonies nos. 45 and 55 appraised just recently.


Britten’s special affinity with the music of Mozart is once again in evidence here. The whole reading is fresh and very well poised, enjoying Mozart’s melodic invention but also keeping the orchestra light on its feet, with even the most routine bass string parts enjoying a nice bit of lift.

Britten is clearly enjoying himself in the first movement cadenza, if the cascade of right hand notes is anything to go by, while the slow movement has a quite luxurious sheen in the strings. The finale is crisp and bright, the piano’s first statement rocking persuasively between right and left hand figurations.

The sound is pretty good here, too, probably superior to the two Haydn symphony offerings.


Not available on Spotify

Also recorded in 1956: Verdi – Il Trovatore (Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Herbert von Karajan) (Naxos)

Next up: Schubert – Fantasy in C major for violin and piano

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Britten on Record: Haydn: Symphony no.55 in E flat major, ‘The Schoolmaster’

Britten on Record: Haydn: Symphony no.55 in E flat major, ‘The Schoolmaster’ (Decca)

Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra / Benjamin Britten

Live recording: Aldeburgh Festival – Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, 19 June 1956

1 Allegro di molto
2 Adagio ma semplicemente
3 Menuetto & trio
4 Finale: Presto

Background and Critical Reception

This recording is taken from the very same concert as the Symphony no.45 (Farewell) listened to previously, with Britten conducting the Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra live from the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival.

Completed by 1774, the symphony is another of Haydn’s to acquire a nickname. Its Schoolmaster label was given after the composer’s death due to the apparently ‘wagging finger’ of the second movement theme, which is subjected to seven variations.


This recording feels much closer than the Farewell symphony, and loses a little of its charm as a result.

In addition Britten drives the first movement with impressive energy, heightening the contrast between this and the pointed toes of the Adagio, where the stiff upper lip can certainly be detected! For this movement Britten gets the strings to use mutes, and some of the violin tunes are extremely detached, their pecking figuration meaning the symphony could almost have been called the Hen as well.

The forthright Minuet gets a graceful and thinly scored trio for company, while the finale is one of Haydn’s irrepressible themes, given the perfect blend of wit and forward drive in this performance.


Not available on Spotify

Also recorded in 1956: Dvořák – Symphony no.7 in D minor Op.70 (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Naxos)

Next up: Mozart – Piano Concerto no.12 in A major ‘Schoolmaster’

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