Royal College of Music, 1930 – image courtesy of Britten 100
Rondo Concertante for piano and strings (6 – 13 October 1930, Britten aged 16)
1 Allegro molto
Dedication not known
Background and Critical Reception
The Rondo Concertante is our first look at the work of Britten at college. Under his new piano teacher, the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin, Britten was finding his feet as a writer of some flair for the keyboard, although he was to have one particular hope dashed when his teacher declared he thought Britten unsuitable for a career as a concert pianist. In the meantime, when Britten showed the music to Arthur on the 9th October, his diary entry reads that ‘he says he likes it, and when it is finished will try it’.
Had Britten become a concert pianist, it is unlikely he would have played the Rondo Concertante without revising it substantially, for the two movements had to be linked up by Colin Matthews, his assistant late in life.
Britten’s musical identity remains elusive in this piece, which begins with quite unusual sonorities in the strings, but then remains quite acerbic and dry. The influences are largely continental, with Bartók evident in the percussive drive of the first movement and the ‘night music’ octaves at the beginning of the second. Sometimes when the music pulls back, as it does about two minutes in to the first movement, the mood softens a bit to sound like Bridge but does not at this point introduce a greatly memorable theme.
There is however a passage of unexpected tenderness 7’15” in to the second movement, where softly propelled piano chords support floated string lines in a heartfelt aside, a moment of pure beauty to complement the first movement’s rigorous workout.
Some of the upward string lines are starting to sound like more mature Britten, though, with the unison passages arguably projecting far ahead to the start of the War Requiem. It is unlikely that Britten had heard music by Shostakovich at this point, but if he had it could also be held as a reference.
If this was new music written today, one might consider it derivative of a film soundtrack – which does at least show Britten was working towards a strong and occasionally original voice, as well as showing signs of the descriptive writing that was to draw him many a film commission later on in the 1930s.
Rolf Hind (piano), Northern Sinfonia / Thomas Zehetmair (NMC) (world premiere recording)
Hind is very clearly defined in his playing, bringing maximum cut and thrust to the more percussive sections of the first movement, while ensemble from the strings of the Northern Sinfonia is commendably tight.
The Rondo Concertante cannot be found on Spotify, but the NMC website offers a minute-long preview of each of the two movements.
Also written in 1930: Elgar – A Severn Suite
Next up: I Saw Three Ships / The Sycamore Tree