Listening to Britten – Two Portraits for strings

(c) Brian Hogwood

Two Portraits for strings (19 August – 10 September 1930, Britten aged 16)

Dedication David Layton (no.1), Self-portrait (no.2)
Duration 15′

Background and Critical Reception

Like many of the early Britten works under scrutiny here, the Two Portraits were not heard in Britten’s lifetime – but since their publication in 1997 have been inching their way towards the repertoire. Again the composer is yearning for his days at Gresham’s, in the sense of missing friends rather than the musical or professional climate. While Chamber Music V was concerned with Paul Azor-Smith, the first portrait is that of David Layton, a fellow tennis player, cricketer and even viola player. The two stayed in touch for a while after Gresham’s, Britten visiting his friend in Cambridge in the mid 1930s. The second portrait is a self-study, shrouded rather more in mystery. A third portrait, of another Gresham’s student Peter Floud, was left unfinished.

Christopher Monk, in an enlightening chapter on Britten’s Juvenilia in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, suggests the composer was not entirely happy with the finished Portraits, as neither is written up into a fair copy.


The second Portrait indicates that Britten was still quite concerned with writing music that he himself could play. Having written the Reflection for viola and piano and the Elegy for solo viola, this offered the possibility of him playing with orchestral accompaniment. More subtly expressive than the first piece, it begins by keeping an emotional distance, again not wanting to reveal too much of its subject, but as the music progresses so the viola becomes more outwardly passionate, the frosted strings sounding like early Schoenberg in accompaniment.

The portrait of David Layton is the complete opposite, irrepressible in spirit, musically adventurous and full of the energy that he clearly had – if once again deciding not to commit itself to a particular key. Perhaps that in itself is a comment on Layton’s nature, although it keeps the divide between Britten’s very tonal vocal works and his less centred instrumental works alive. There are strong echoes of Hindemith in some of the harmonic writing, though there is very little evidence that Britten had encountered his music at this point. Bridge is the more commonly heard influence.

As Paul Kildea notes, Britten was still to settle on an individual musical voice, and the Two Portraits capture something of the restless struggle and desire towards achieving that goal.

Recordings used
Hallé / Kent Nagano (world premiere recording) (Erato)
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
European Camerata / Laurent Quénelle (Fuga Libera)

Both Nagano and Gardner versions are excellently played and recorded, and both adopt pretty much identical speeds for the energetic Layton and the more thoughtful, introspective Britten. Quénelle’s version is if anything more energetic, but the recording balance is more upfront.

Laurent Quénelle conducts the European Camerata in characterful versions of the Two Portraits, as part of an all-Britten CD available on Fuga Libera.

Also written in 1930: Holst – Hammersmith

Next up: I Saw Three Ships / The Sycamore Tree

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