Listening to Britten – Piano Concerto, Op.13


(c) Ben Hogwood

Piano Concerto, Op.13 (7 February – 26 July 1938, Britten aged 24. Revised c1945)

1 Toccata
2 Waltz
3 Impromptu (replacing the original Recitative and Aria)
4 March

Dedication Lennox Berkeley
Duration 35′

Audio clips – using the recording made by Sviatoslav Richter and the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Britten himself. With thanks to Decca

1. Toccata

2. Waltz

3. Impromptu

4. March

Original third movement – with Steven Osborne and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. With thanks to Hyperion

3. Recitative and Aria

Background and Critical Reception

‘It certainly sounds ‘popular’ enough, and people seem to like it alright’. The words of Britten after rehearsals of what he titled his Piano Concerto no.1, first performed at the BBC Proms on 18 August 1938 with Britten as soloist and Sir Henry Wood conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The program opened with Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, which perhaps emphasised his influence, among others, on the extravert concerto.

‘If music be indeed the food of love, I think you stand a very good chance’, said the work’s dedicatee, Lennox Berkeley. Yet the work got a mixed reception, highlighting the increasing pull on Britten’s affections between Auden and his circle and Frank Bridge and his followers. The composer Constant Lambert liked the first two movements and their bravura, but was less convinced by the last two. This echoes the spontaneity of Britten’s composition, for the first movement fairly flew by, the second took a little longer, third and fourth longer still. Lambert saw the second movement Waltz as hovering between ‘straight’ and ‘cod’.

In his Britten biography Michael Oliver gets to the heart of the concerto, talking about the Toccata’s ‘sonata form movement of considerable length and skill’, a rebuttal to those who saw Britten as a ‘short form’ composer. ‘The opposition of the soloist’s brilliant clatter and the orchestra’s lyricism as assured, at times witty’, he says.

Eric Roseberry, writing in the Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, highlights the work’s ’emotional ambiguity’. Paul Kildea sees it as ‘a perfectly credible vehicle for Britten the performer…’, but notes that ‘once the few subsequent performances were completed, Britten would never again be heard in such virtuosic concerto repertory’, an indication that Britten was not comfortable with a centre-stage role.

Britten revised the third movement, replacing his original Recitative and Aria with an Impromptu – which is actually in passacaglia form, and the first performance of the concerto in this form fell to the Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood in 1946.

Thoughts

Britten was in exuberant mood around the time of composition for his Piano Concerto, which tallies with the new extravagance found in the Cabaret Songs. Maybe he was reveling in the freedom afforded him now his mother was not at his shoulder, although of course this was not an easy time for him either. Perhaps Britten saw an opportunity with the premiere taking place at the Proms to make a name for himself also.

One way or another, the Piano Concerto emphatically casts off the shackles with a devil-may-care attitude, the like of which runs through Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no.1. There is an extravagance here that we haven’t really heard up until now in the listening, one that makes room for Britten’s love of Tchaikovsky. There is the odd passage that equates to his First Piano Concerto, which Britten played and knew well.

The Waltz reveals more of the soloistic nature of Britten’s writing, with the viola especially, but it soon becomes brash and overly exuberant, a bit exaggerated. This is not subtle music, with its banging timpani and shrill wind, but it fits in with the overall feel of the piece. Even the slow(er) Impromptu goes over the top, though it is anguished in parts, and the rolling percussion towards the climax is like an extended clap of thunder.

Subsituting Britten’s original slow movement, the Recitative and Aria offers much more of an emotional contrast. While the Impromptu is relatively anguished this begins more tenderly, even if the piano can’t resist taking over, dueling with a horn fanfare. A passionate Mahlerian utterance from violas and cellos soon cuts to a sweeping tune that sounds much more like Tchaikovsky.

The finale wraps everything up in perfunctory fashion, and while a bit less convincing than its predecessors it has a tune to hang on to, thanks to piano and trumpet, and it keeps to the exuberant mood, throwing caution to the winds as we gallop over the finishing line.

The Piano Concerto is a curious piece, wearing its influences liberally on its sleeve, but becoming greater than the sum of its parts. By no means is it a flawless work, but casting that aside there are many opportunities for pure and simple enjoyment.

Recordings used
Sviatoslav Richter (piano), English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Steven Osborne (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (Hyperion)
Joanna MacGregor (piano), English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Collins)
Howard Shelley, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Leif Ove Andsnes, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (EMI Classics)

More recently the teams recording the Piano Concerto have plumped for both versions of the third movement, giving useful playback options. Of these, Steven Osborne is impeccably drilled, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra ensuring the piece gets the rhythmic clarity it needs for a successful performance. Shelley favours a more particular approach that is also impressively clear, supported by equally well-drilled accompaniment from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner. Chandos’ recording is set back a little further but that is no bad thing. Joanna MacGregor and Leif Ove Andsnes also demonstrate their technical prowess in brightly coloured versions, though in MacGregor’s version the finale sounds a bit too serious.

Yet it is the work’s first recording that remains indispensable. Sviatoslav Richter is not perhaps the most obvious choice for this work, but while his mercurial and forthright reading has a little less humour, it is incredibly well played and the longer phrases are superbly structured. The ECO sound ever so slightly smaller in scale but reveal more of the orchestral detail under Britten’s direction, especially the pizzicato violins and snarling muted trumpets.

Spotify

A number of these versions are available on Spotify, and the following playlist includes those by Richter, MacGregor, Andsnes and a previously uncovered version by Ralf Gothoni, with the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and Okko Kamu. Both Gothoni and MacGregor include both versions of the slow movement.

Also written in 1938: Shostakovich – String Quartet No.1 in C major, Op.49

Next up: On the Frontier

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2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Piano Concerto, Op.13

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – the American dream | Good Morning Britten

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