Listening to Britten – There is a willow grows aslant a brook


(c) Ben Hogwood

There is a willow grows aslant a brook (arrangement of Bridge for viola and piano) (11 – 13 December 1932, Britten aged 19)

Dedication not known
Duration 9′

Background and Critical Reception

Britten arranged his teacher’s intriguing poem for orchestra twice – once for reduced orchestra, in the first Aldeburgh Festival, and once for viola and piano. Neither version is often heard. The piece itself takes its name from a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Anthony Payne, author of Frank Bridge – radical and conservative, calls the piece ‘a miracle of resourceful and atmospheric orchestration’, illustrating the scale of the task faced by Britten. Yet it is likely the arrangement was for more private use, and convenient that it was for the instrument played by both composers, the viola.

Thoughts

There is a willow grows aslant a brook is one of Frank Bridge’s most appealing and elusive pieces, setting a series of moods with deft shades of colour from the orchestra. In that respect it is a difficult piece to arrange for viola and piano, but Britten finds a way to incorporate much of the detail and keep the mysterious atmosphere without the music sounding cold.

Perhaps inevitably there is a loss of detail and shading, like a black and white version of a colour photograph, but it is clear Britten is now at ease composing for his own instrument the viola, setting it long lines that wind their way through the piece, especially from 6′ onwards.

To get the best from the piece in either form you need to hear it in a quiet environment, preferably on headphones, so that each phrase and nuance can be enjoyed fully.

Recordings used

Original – Bournemouth Sinfonietta / Norman Del Mar (Chandos)
Arrangement – Nobuko Imai (viola), Roland Pöntinen (piano) (BIS)

Imai gets to the nub of Bridge’s mysterious piece, which remains emotionally elusive and intriguing.

Spotify

Bridge’s original can be heard here in the Norman Del Mar version, while Britten’s arrangement is played by Nobuko Imai here

Also written in 1932: Grainger – Handel in the Strand

Next up: Alla marcia

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