Listening to Britten – Holiday Diary, Op.5


(c) Brian Hogwood

Holiday Diary, Op.5 – suite for piano (1 September – 14 October 1934, Britten aged 20)

1 Early morning bathe
2 Sailing
3 Funfair
4 Night

Dedication Arthur Benjamin
Duration 16′

Audio clips will be added here shortly (all from the recording made by Michael Dussek, (c) Hyperion)

1 Early morning bathe

2 Sailing

3 Funfair

4 Night

Background and Critical Reception

Most of Britten’s published work for his own instrument, the piano, casts it in an accompanying role rather than a centre stage one – a comment on Britten’s own role as composer, perhaps. Only in the Piano Concerto, Op.13, the Diversions, Op.24 and a couple of relatively short solo pieces does it come to the front.

Holiday Diary is the most substantial of these solo pieces, a four movement suite that looks at some of the different coastal experiences an English coastal holiday might bring. It seems Britten initially wanted a bigger suite, but as he was finding composition rather difficult in 1934 (see the Jubilate Deo in E flat) he could happily settle on this completed suite.

Paul Kildea’s biography includes a fascinating paragraph on it. ‘When Clifford Curzon was performing it in the 1940s, Britten told him he intended it to be a series of impressions of a boy’s pre-war seaside holiday – nostalgia for a time he never knew,’ he writes. ‘It would have been an illuminating experience to hear the great Mozartian Curzon perform Holiday Diary, especially the motionless Night movement, which expertly gives the impression of sound travelling more slowly, as it does on cool evenings, with its associated refractory effects’.

It has made the fringes of the piano repertory, with artists such as Shura Cherkassky and Stephen Hough also identifying with Britten’s picture painting.

Thoughts

If guilty pleasures are to exist in an output such as Britten’s, then Holiday Diary is definitely one of mine, fulfilling the role of ‘last piece before sleep’ on many an occasion. The reason for this is its unexpected and concentrated bursts of intimacy, found in the Sailing and Night movements especially. Night, as Kildea recognises, is very good at portraying the unusual way sound carries on a summer evening.

Perhaps the best bit is Britten’s extraordinarily vivid depiction of a swimmer in Early morning bathe. Here you can sense the trepidation as the bather approaches the water, dips in a toe and recoils at the cold – before blindly seizing the initiative and plunging in. The music changes quickly here, flowing with the strokes of the swimmer, who completes the distance and gets out again. This movement shows just how sharply Britten could cast a musical impression, and serves notice for his many descriptions from the piano in accompaniment to song texts.

The charm and wit abound elsewhere, along with the almost ubiquitous nostalgia in Britten’s compositions of 1934, as if he was pining for time when his father was still alive. This mixture of emotions makes Holiday Diary a lovely piece, warmly recommended to any piano students and listeners looking for something off the beaten track.

Recordings used

Stephen Hough (piano) (Virgin Classics)
Michael Dussek (piano) (Hyperion)
Dejan Lazic (Channel Classics)
Shura Cherkassky (Decca)

Stephen Hough enjoys each characterisation of Britten’s holidaymakers, bringing a touching sentimentality to Sailing without overdoing it. Michael Dussek enjoys a bigger acoustic for Hyperion, which gives more of a sense of the outdoors. Cherkassky’s swimmer has much quicker strokes in a quickfire recording for Decca, now very difficult to find. Dejan Lazic, the only one of these four available on Spotify, is aggressive in places but also enjoys wide open recorded sound, and is largely responsive to Britten’s pictures.

Spotify

The Lazic recording can be found here, from tracks 11-14

Also written in 1934: Holst – The Wandering Scholar

Next up: A Poison Tree

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