It may come as something of a surprise to think of Tchaikovsky as an influence on the music of Britten, especially when the big, Romantic gestures of the Piano Concerto no.1 and the Violin Concerto are considered. Where is their equivalent in Britten?
Yet several accounts of Britten’s musical life reveal that he was drawn not towards the outward nature of the works above, or indeed the six symphonies, but that he reserved special praise instead for the symphonic poems Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini, the ballet music and some of the songs, which he performed with Peter Pears, Heather Harper and Janet Baker.
In his interpretations, Britten identified in Tchaikovsky an emotional bleakness that others did not often find. It is instructive to compare his and Leonard Bernstein’s recordings of Romeo and Juliet. Britten’s account, once available as part of the Britten the Performer series but now to be found on DVD, is remarkable for its clarity, with the vivid wind chorale theme of the opening section given out with a sharply etched line. Tragedy is never far from the surface of this reading but it is found in restraint. Compare this with the searing and extrovert Bernstein, where both voltage and volume are high. Both interpretations are valid, but Britten’s speaks more of inner turmoil and intimate thoughts and anxieties – all traits that can be found in his music, especially that of his later years.
Britten’s respect for Tchaikovsky is most explicitly represented in his only published attempt at a ballet score, The Prince of the Pagodas, where the influence of The Sleeping Beauty can be found, Britten having apparently kept the score by his bed at the time of composition. In the final movement of the Solo Cello Suite no.3, Britten effectively gives his dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich a present, directly quoting from three Tchaikovsky songs – The grey eagle, Autumn and Under the apple tree.
Britten still found time and inclination to enjoy Tchaikovsky’s more optimistic music, too, and in this he had Rostropovich as his flamboyant collaborator. On a second DVD of Britten conducting from the Aldeburgh Festival, the cellist takes centre stage for an exuberant account of the Rococo Variations, performed with a smile on its face, and this is followed by an extravagant account of the Pezzo Capriccioso for the same forces, with Rostropovich in frankly outrageous virtuosic form. Other recordings captured by the Britten The Performer series – hopefully to be released again this year – are a vivacious Orchestral Suite no.4 (Mozartiana), the Serenade for Strings and a fiery Francesca da Rimini, all with the English Chamber Orchestra.
Tchaikovsky, then, was clearly a composer close to Britten’s heart – and it seems Britten identified with the emotional tensions bubbling close to the surface, not just in his music but in his mind, too.
The music referred to and listened to here can be found on a Spotify playlist. With very few of the Britten recordings currently available, I have substituted a different – but equally famous – recording of the Rococo Variations, along with Antonio Pappano’s highly rated recording of Francesca da Rimini. The following recordings were used as reference:
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet – English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (‘Britten the Performer’ series from BBC/IMG Artists, also available on DVD from ICA Classics).
Romeo and Juliet (comparison) – New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein
Tchaikovsky: Rococo Variations Op.33; Pezzo Capriccioso Op.62 – Mstislav Rostropovich, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (DVD, ICA Classics – Pezzo Capriccioso also available on CD from BBC Legends)
Tchaikovsky: Orchestral Suite No.4 Op.61, ‘Mozartiana’ – English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (‘Britten the Performer’ series from BBC/IMG Artists)
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings Op.48 – English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (‘Britten the Performer’ series from BBC/IMG Artists)
Tchaikovsky – Francesca da Rimini Op.32 – English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (‘Britten the Performer’ series from BBC/IMG Artists)