Listening to Britten – Double Concerto

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Double concerto for violin, viola and orchestra in B minor (9 March – 1 July 1932, Britten aged 18)

1 Allegro ma non troppo
2 Rhapsody: Poco lento
3 Allegro scherzando – Tempo primo (Allegro ma non troppo)

Dedication not known
Duration 22′

Background and Critical Reception

There are surprisingly few works for violin, viola and orchestra in the repertoire – with Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante the only obvious example. Britten’s concerto takes its lead from this, from a performance of the work he described as ‘the most marvellous musical thrill of my life yet’. A second point of reference is likely to have been Walton’s Viola Concerto, which he had heard and admired the previous autumn.

The first movement, completed in just two days, got an encouraging response when shown to John Ireland on 11th March 1932. Ten days later, however, Britten was complaining of having written a ‘fatuous’ slow movement, and by the end of the month he was proclaiming, ‘I shall tear that up soon’. With no likelihood of performance at the college, it fell in to obscurity.

The work survived in short score, and was prepared for performance by Colin Matthews, who noted it was ‘complete in practically every detail’. It was performed for the first time in the 1997 Aldeburgh Festival, and recorded shortly after by the same conductor, Kent Nagano, who was joined by Gidon Kremer and Yuri Bashmet.

Given its relatively recent emergence, little is written about the concerto thus far, but for John Bridcut ‘Britten’s true orchestral personality flowers for the first time’.


It is a good thing Britten decided not to scrap the work – and that Colin Matthews stepped in to provide the necessary editing for performance, because the Double Concerto is a lively piece that frequently impresses with its melodic material and closely woven dialogue between the soloists.

The outer movements are energetic, and unusually in the last movement Britten summons up a motif of real power and momentum, a six-note hook handed around between soloists and orchestra until it destroys everything else with its obsessive nature. This point is where one might expect the piece to finish, but it continues in a slightly softer vein. The first movement opens with a horn call, which to me signals the start of Britten’s love of writing for this instrument.

The slow movement has some nice moments but its slightly sour climax offers a clue to the reason Britten fell out of favour with it, despite some impressive blending of the two soloists’ lines.

Recordings used
Gidon Kremer (violin), Yuri Bashmet (viola), Hallé Orchestra / Kent Nagano (Erato)
Anthony Marwood (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (Hyperion)
Pieter Schoeman (violin), Alexander Zemtsov (viola), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (live recording) (LPO own label)

Since it was introduced in 1997 by the heavyweight team of Kremer, Bashmet and Nagano, the Double Concerto is becoming more popular as a recorded piece. Marwood and Power enjoy the more natural sound and blend, with colourful orchestral accompaniment from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The LPO version is up close and personal, but this brings across the wiry threads of the solo writing and adds a sharper bite to the strings. Both are excellent versions.

The Jurowski recording can be found here, part of an LPO live disc.

Also written in 1932: Stravinsky – Suite italienne

Next up: Sinfonietta, Op.1

This entry was posted in Listening to Britten, Orchestral, Soloist with orchestra, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Listening to Britten – Double Concerto

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

  2. Mark Ellerby says:

    You may be interested to know that we are performing Britten’s Double Concerto in Chippenham, Wiltshire on 16th November with Philip Dukes, the original Viola Soloist from the first performance in Aldborough in 1997. He is joined by Kate Suthers (Violin) and North Wiltshire Orchestra.

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