Violinist Thomas Gould is leader of both the Britten Sinfonia and the Aurora Orchestra, as well as a guest member of the Nash Ensemble. For the Britten centenary year he has learned the Violin Concerto, and in this interview he talks of the profound effect it has wrought. He considers Britten’s legacy through the ensemble that bears the composer’s name, how taking in a number of different musical styles can be beneficial for performance as a whole, and how an experiment in which he recently did time as a busker at Westminster tube station could be adapted for Britten 100!
Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?
I was singing an owl in Noye’s Fludde! Anyone who knows me will tell me I’m no great singer though. I was eight years old, and a member of the Finchley Children’s Music Group, and we performed it at the Royal Albert Hall. It was my first experience of both Britten and the Royal Albert Hall, but I haven’t had to act an owl since!
What did you think of the music at the time?
I can’t remember unfortunately, it was too long ago and I was too young. I guess the next time I came across Britten was through performing the String Quartets at the Royal Academy of Music. We did no.3 and no.2 a bit, and I got to know the Third Quartet very well. Then when I joined the Britten Sinfonia, in 2006, it was like a flood of the chamber orchestra works, and as you might expect we play Britten quite often. With them I’ve played St Nicholas, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, the Nocturne the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge and the Simple Symphony. All of them are staples of the chamber orchestra repertoire. What I’ve not done, though, is the operas, much to my regret!
Is this the first time you have played the Violin Concerto?
I’ve learned it especially for the concerts with the Royal Orchestral Society. If I can rephrase the question slightly though, and compare it with other violin concertos I’ve played, I guess I’ll have an even clearer impression after the performance, but it feels like a real sweep from the first bar to the last, with lots of motifs that tie things together, and a military feel to the motif that comes back.
Britten achieves this journey from beginning to end without any let-up, and it feels like there are no breaks, it’s one massive sweep. You don’t lose concentration ever, because you’re gripped by what will happen next. There is a violent scherzo, and the huge Bach-like Passacaglia, with a series of variations that finish with a prayer-like coda. It’s incredible, especially when you get to the coda, because it feels beyond the limits of the violin, and you don’t feel like a violinist any more, more like a muezzin, who calls everybody to prayer. It’s got that quality. I don’t normally get so caught up and say this about most pieces!
You played the Three Divertimenti with the Britten Sinfonia soloists recently. What do you think has developed in Britten’s writing between this and the Violin Concerto?
There is no comparison for me. The Three Divertimenti are light and bright, and fun, but there is not remotely the same depth and emotion. The Violin Concerto has much more in common with the opera around it, Paul Bunyan. The main problem is the violinist it was written for, Antonio Brosa. He must have been like Paganini, because the tricks Britten writes in for him are so difficult! The double harmonic scales are notorious; I haven’t played anything like that since scale exams at the Academy.
Have you played the Suite for Violin and Piano at all?
I haven’t. I know it – there’s a fiendish ‘moto perpetuo’ in it. Britten had an amazing gift for writing for the instrument; you can feel that from the concerto. Everything is possible and violinistic, you just need to work out how. Another composer who has that quality is Thomas Adès. You have to live with his music for a while, and then you see he knew what he was doing. It’s baffling because neither of them are or were violinists. There is this amazing bit in the Britten Violin Concerto where he writes for two piccolos and tuba, and that makes me think of Adès, it’s so far ahead of its time.
With the Britten Sinfonia ‘At Lunch’ series you are playing Britten works in the context of others, and it seems to work very well with the inclusion of composers Britten knew, such as Copland, Poulenc and Shostakovich.
Yeah, we’ve been getting that feedback in the programmes. It’s quite easy to deal with Britten, because he has so many influences and people he influenced. Going back to the Violin Concerto, there are big similarities with the Shostakovich concertos that were written a decade later, but I think there are also clear references to the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto. The two scherzos and structures are very similar, and I think the two would lie together very well on a disc.
Then you have the story about Britten’s mum spending lots of time persuading him about the importance of composers who begin with the letter ‘B’ – Bach and Buxtehude for example – and in the last movement you get a lot of Bach and even Bruckner coming through. I think so, and a lot of other people think so, and I also think some of it is very Korngold-esque, it’s incredibly romantic. The first two chords just melt. If you listen to Janine Jansen’s recording, she’s done a lot for this piece – and others have recently too, thinking of Daniel Hope, Frank Peter Zimmermann, and one or two others.
Is the Britten Sinfonia about furthering Britten’s approach rather than specifically playing his music?
Yeah, and possibly also with a nod towards geography, given the connection we have with Suffolk and the east of England. It’s more a philosophical connection I would say.
Does it help a lot to cross between genres – thinking of the collaboration concerts you’ve done with the groups Efterklang and Jaga Jazzist?
I’ve got a swing band, as well, which takes up a lot of my time, called Man Overboard. It’s helpful; it’s getting much more common among musicians too. This morning I was watching the group 2CELLOS, who became famous for their version of the Michael Jackson song Smooth Criminal, and now they can sell out a concert hall their latest piece is by Sollima, and it’s beautiful. That made me think that it’s not just serious classical players ‘dumbing down’, they’ve started out playing pop music and are introducing real music, if you like.
We’re living in a time when you’re likely to be playing in the 100 club as the Wigmore Hall, and with Britten Sinfonia, and my role as leader of the Aurora Orchestra, you’re expected to go beyond the realms of being a normal classical violinist. The job description is a lot wider lately, and I’ve always liked to combine solo playing with orchestral playing and jazz, and my solo playing has definitely improved because of the work I do with the Britten Sinfonia. I’ve been able to work with people like Pekka Kuusisto, Henning Kraggerud and Alina Ibragimova, who are hugely inspirational, and it’s done no end of good for my solo playing, and my orchestral playing as a result. Everything informs everything else!
If you were busking again, like you did for the London Evening Standard at an underground station, which piece of Britten might you play?
As violinists we are not that spoiled for choice with Britten, but there is one piece that I could play. It’s a piece he also wrote for Brosa, called Reveille. As well as being shit hot at the violin, and being able to do all the great technical stuff, Brosa was also famous for not liking mornings, which is something I can definitely relate to! So Britten wrote this piece for him, and it is a violin showpiece that starts off lazy and not quite awake, and then Brosa has a morning coffee and reels off a showpiece, and then he goes back to sleep! That would be the piece I would choose for Westminster tube station!
Are there any of Britten’s pieces that you find more difficult to hear or to perform?
Funnily enough I found the Three Divertimenti quite difficult, because the language is so simple in a way that is almost two-dimensional, and there is not a great deal to get your teeth in to. I guess that wasn’t easy for me. In the concerto, although the notes are a lot harder, I find emotionally I understand more where he is coming from. The themes are about the Spanish Civil War, and it’s about loss, war and hope. With a piece like the Simple Symphony, which we know so well and where everything feels so familiar, those pieces feel harder to interpret because they are so well known. I feel that a little bit with the Sinfonietta, which we did recently.
What is your personal favourite in his output and why?
At the moment, definitely the Violin Concerto. It’s absolutely up there with the Second and Third String Quartets in terms of an emotional journey, and it’s one of the most rewarding concertos that I have played. I would put it up there with the Beethoven and the Adès in terms of the emotional punch it packs. Beethoven has to be up there because nothing comes close to that, but the Adès completely destroys you too, it’s so emotional.
Finally, what do you hope people take from the Britten centenary year?
I guess a more rounded knowledge of his music. Some of it is so well known, but then there are huge swathes that nobody really knows about – the Piano Concerto, the Cello Symphony. There is a lot of amazing Britten that is unjustly neglected, and the reasons for that really aren’t clear. I read somewhere that the reason the Violin Concerto isn’t played much is because it ends quietly, but I think that’s really patronising! It is becoming more common now though, which is a great thing.