Listening to Britten – Suite for violin and piano, Op.6


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Suite for violin and piano, Op.6 (5 November 1934 – 27 April 1935, Britten aged 21)

Introduction
1 March
2 Moto perpetuo
3 Lullaby
4 Waltz

Dedication not known
Duration 18′

Audio clips
Clips of the new Chandos recording from Tasmin Little and Piers Lane can be found on Amazon

Background and Critical Reception

By finishing this suite, Britten buried the hatchet of one of the pieces that had been causing him trouble during the compositional block of early 1935. That’s not to say he wasn’t pleased with the finished result, for he dug it out again late in his life, publishing the March, Lullaby and Waltz separately in early 1976.

The piece took on several forms before Britten finally went with the five movement format, writing the Introduction and the March last of all. The BBC broadcast the work’s first performance, while its first public airing was for the International Society for Contemporary Music in Barcelona. It had been selected by two formidable musical figures, Anton Webern and Ernest Ansermet. Britten may not have dedicated explicitly to Toni Brosa, but the Spanish violinist became associated with the piece. Clearly he was a virtuoso, for Britten asks a lot of the instrument through the five movements.

The suite gets a good write-up from Britten scholars. John Bridcut delights in the waltz, and the lullaby that precedes it. Michael Kennedy looks at the Schoenbergian influence, perceived to be in a recurring mini ‘note row’ of E-F-B-C, and declares the suite ‘the last of what one might call Britten’s prentice instrumental works. They contain few glimpses of the mature artist…and are fluent and intelligent – and capable, though still shy, of emotional warmth.

Thoughts

The suite is one of Britten’s more continental early works, and fluctuates between abrasive statements and charming humour. On the very first listen there are Mediterranean and Viennese flavours to be heard. These make sense as Britten began writing the piece in Vienna, and John Bridcut refers to him playing arrangements of Johann Strauss waltzes for violin and piano in 1935.

Britten writes in a more obvious, virtuosic way, with bold phrasing – his melodies are very sure of themselves. There is undiluted humour, too, in the wonderful waltz finale, a flamboyant concert piece par excellence. This is the ideal riposte to the thoughtful and beautiful Lullaby, where time stops still for contemplation. It is easy to see why Webern would have warmed to the March, with its sonorities along a similar line to Schoenberg’s Phantasy for violin and piano, while the Moto perpetuo is a dizzying, headlong dash that means both performers need to hang on to their seats!

Recordings used

Alexander Barantschik (violin), John Alley (piano) (EMI)
Tasmin Little (violin), Piers Lane (piano) (Chandos)

Two excellent recordings. Barantschik and Alley are a little faster, with a snap to the Moto perpetuo and Waltz that gives an extra frisson. The extra bloom Little and Lane have in their recorded sound gives an added warmth. She is also a little more bold in the attack rendered to the Introduction, but either version serves very well as a recommendation.

Spotify

Barantschik and Adey’s EMI recording can be heard on an EMI British Composers compilation, at the beginning of the third disc.

Also written in 1935: Berg – Violin Concerto

Next up: Telegrams

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