Listening to Britten – Sinfonietta, Op.1


(c) Brian Hogwood

Sinfonietta, Op.1 for chamber ensemble (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet) (20 June – 9 July 1932, Britten aged 18)

1 Poco presto ed agitato
2 Variations
3 Tarantella

Dedication Frank Bridge
Duration 15′

Audio – clips of the version by Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (c) 1996 (Hyperion)

1 Poco presto ed agitato

2 Variations

3 Tarantella

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s Sinfonietta comes in two performing versions – the original, with one instrument per part, or an arrangement for small orchestra made in 1936. It was composed in three weeks in the summer of 1932, and Britten felt assured enough to give it the label of his Op.1.

The work received its first performance at the Ballet Club on 31 January 1933 in rather trying circumstances for the composer, who had to suffer players either not turning up for rehearsal, or being chronically under-rehearsed when they did. Despite that the performance went relatively well, and reviews were largely positive. The Times gushed that Britten was ‘striking out on a path of his own…he possesses a power of invention apart from the efficiency with which he handles his material’.

Admiration of the work tends to focus on its use of condensed form rather than the sheer quality of its melodic ideas, distinctive though some of them are. Arnold Whittall notes this together with an inventive use of rhythm, while an extended essay from Arved Ashby in the Cambridge Companion talks of formal qualities and techniques. Ashby, together with Michael Oliver, Paul Kildea and Neil Powell in their very different biographies of the composer, all highlight close links with Schoenberg.

Thoughts

With the Sinfonietta, Britten achieves his most accomplished levels of composition yet. The thematic material dovetails beautifully, the instrumentation is economical and sympathetic, and the musical language itself takes the composer ever closer to the continent.

There are strong strains of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no.1 in the opening, with its bold horn call, and in the form, for the three movements more or less fuse together. Meanwhile the harmonies and scoring make reference to Hindemith and Stravinsky.

It is a colourful work, too, making use of all the combinations ten solo instruments afford, and painting attractive pictures with its use of flute, clarinet and oboe in particular, but adding subtle effects such as pizzicato strings. The seeds of Britten’s incredibly descriptive musical mind are shown here, in a way that was to become ever more relevant in his writing for stage and screen.

Despite the concentration on form there is emotion to be found, too. In the Tarantella there are brief but poignant asides, but when left unchecked the music gains impressive momentum, as it does leading up to the affirmative end. The second movement Variations are a different story, subtly deployed and beautifully scored so that one instrument’s line often runs into the next, culminating in a luminous duet for two violins.

Recordings used
Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (Hyperion)
Tapiola Sinfonietta / Osmo Vänskä (BIS)
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Britten Sinfonia / Daniel Harding (EMI)

Clarity is the watchword of the Nash Ensemble’s version, which brings the score to life in all its minute detail. In the larger version there is a sharpness to the Tapiola Sinfonietta under Osmo Vänskä, still careful to bring out the solo lines. The Britten Sinfonia and Daniel Harding pick and probe at the detail, revealing much more in the first movement, while Edward Gardner enjoys the weight of the BBC SO strings in the Tarantella. This does however have the knock-on effect of masking some of the detail, the subtleties of the wind writing losing out.

Spotify

Recordings of the original chamber version are surprisingly difficult to come by on Spotify – none could be found – but the Daniel Harding and Osmo Vänskä recordings have been put together in the form of a playlisthere

Also written in 1932: Bliss – A Colour Symphony

Next up: Phantasy Quartet, Op.2

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