In 1952 the celebrated critic and musical theorist Hans Keller declared, ‘Mozart and Britten are the only two composers I know who strongly and widely attract people who do not understand them’.
It is intriguing that such a perceptive figure as Keller should bracket the two composers together, for there are more recordings available of Britten conducting Mozart than any other composer save himself. Throughout his life Britten was to enjoy a great closeness with his music, from the intimacy of the chamber and two-piano music to the larger scale of the symphony orchestra and the opera house.
It is the opera house, though, that appears to have dictated Britten’s musical responses to Mozart more than any. In his book ‘Essential Britten’, republished for the composer’s centenary year by Faber & Faber, John Bridcut gives details of the day when Britten ‘discovers’ Mozart, ‘knocked flat’ after seeing a production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House. The composer talks of ‘this simple beauty (expressing every emotion) that is withering to any ambitions one might have’.
This simplicity is perhaps the key element of Mozart’s music that Britten took when writing his own – but Mozart, it seems, spoke longest and loudest to Britten the opera composer. When Britten recorded his music or performed it live, a sense of operatic drama was never far from hand. This can be witnessed first of all in the type of symphonies Britten recorded – the more anguished Symphonies no.25 and Symphony no.40, both in G minor, receive especially poignant and emotive performances. The Prague symphony, no.38, whose introduction is also in a minor key, undergoes a vivid darkness to light transition in the first movement. There is a sunny side too, however, and the Symphony no.29 in A major is sweetness and light, bright and energetic, with phrases that bounce off the strings of the violins and plenty of forward momentum.
This ‘Sturm und Drang’ approach carries over to performances of the Piano Concertos, which were often given with his great friend Sviatoslav Richter as soloist. It is to be hoped the BBC series Britten The Performer will be resurrected in this anniversary year, for in the late 1990s its first instalments contained intense performances of the Piano Concertos nos.22 and 24, among others. With Clifford Curzon, too, Britten explored the operatic connotations of the Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor. In their recording the central romance is given a tender and almost weightless performance, like an aria.
In the chamber and two-piano music Britten makes his mark as a pianist of great dexterity, wit and poise. The Piano Quartets, often performed with members of the Amadeus String Quartet, emerge with a real sense of enjoyment in the close at hand music making. This becomes even more evident in the two-piano music with Richter, captured live by Decca at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967. Here the performance is joyous and carefree, so much so that Britten has to struggle manfully to keep up with his accomplice on occasion, a situation evident from the finales of both the Sonatas for Two Pianos.
What speaks more than anything, however, is that an initially restless audience for the D major sonata is quelled almost completely by the radiant Andante. Clearly they were witnessing something special – a meeting of musical minds and a clear love and devotion on Britten’s part for the music of ‘the most controlled of composers, who can express the most turbulent feelings in the most unruffled way’. Britten’s words were once again speaking volumes on one of the most important composers in his musical world.
Many of the recordings referred to and listened to here can be found on a Spotify playlist. The following recordings were used as reference:
Mozart: Symphonies Nos.25, 29, 38, & 40; Serenata notturna – English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos.20 & 27 – Clifford Curzon (piano), English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.19; Piano Quartet No.2 – English Opera Group Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (piano), Benjamin Britten with the Amadeus Quartet (Pearl)
Mozart: Sonata for 2 pianos in D major K448; Sonata for Piano Duet in C major K521 – Sviatoslav Richter and Benjamin Britten (pianos), recorded live at Aldeburgh (Decca)