Listening to Britten – Young Apollo, Op.16


The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon. Image taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Young Apollo, Op.16 (23 July – 2 August 1939, Britten aged 25)

Dedication Alexander Chuhaldin
Duration 7’30”

Audio clip – using the recent recording made by Steven Osborne and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov. With thanks to Hyperion.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten and Peter Pears wasted no time on their arrival in Canada. Within weeks Britten was deeply ensconced in several projects, Les illuminations and the Violin Concerto among them, while he and Pears lived in a cabin in Quebec. Among the compositions was Young Apollo, a ‘fanfare for piano, string quartet and string orchestra’, commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Alexander Chuhaldin. He conducted the first performance on 27 August 1939, at which Britten was the solo pianist.

Britten took the last line of the Keats poem Hyperion as his inspiration, mindful that the poet was a favourite of Wulff Scherchen, with whom he was emotionally involved. Yet with his relationship with Pears now gathering intensity, Britten found himself discovering ‘such sunshine as I’ve never seen before’.

John Bridcut describes how ‘in the closing bars he asserts the primacy of beauty through an emphatic succession in the strings of twelve A major chords – his insistent tonic – and A major, as he kept demonstrating (with his ‘lovely boy’ in the Nocturne, and with Tadzio in ‘Death In Venice’) was his key for essential male beauty’. He goes on to speculate that withdrawing the piece from the public eye was a form of closure where Scherchen was concerned, though it is also thought Pears insisted on it. Young Apollo was therefore not heard again in public until the 1979 Aldeburgh Festival.

Finally Neil Powell, whose Britten biography contains an excellent account of his journey to and settlement in North America, labels this as ‘the most ecstatic piece he had ever written’.

Thoughts

Young Apollo is bold and flamboyant, and takes flight in a flurry of violins that strongly suggest the sound of trumpets, evoked so memorably in The Company of Heaven.

The piano thunders through the texture, suggesting a spot of Rachmaninov with the utter force of its contribution, before Britten works his magic on the strings, using successful techniques from the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge to mix things up. There is a curious interlude about three-quarters of the way through, as if the composer is suddenly lost in thought, and the music pauses half way between major and minor, absent without leave, before the final rush to the line gets back, emphatically, to the major key.

This is probably the least subtle that Britten gets at any point in his output, but it works well as a concert opener with its loud bravura and dazzlingly bright scoring.

Recordings used

Steven Osborne (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (Hyperion)
Peter Donohoe (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI Classics)
Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Hallé Orchestra / Kent Nagano (Erato)

All three versions are excellent. Steven Osborne benefits from an exceptionally clean recorded sound on Hyperion, while Donohoe has a weighty tone and backing from the CBSO. By a whisker I would plump for Nikolai Lugansky, not just because his technique is beyond reproach, but because the string playing from the Hallé is so good. Either of the three versions serve the piece well, mind!

Spotify

Peter Donohoe and the CBSO under Rattle can be heard here, while Lugansky and Nagano are here

Also written in 1939: Walton – Violin Concerto

Next up: A.M.D.G.

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5 Responses to Listening to Britten – Young Apollo, Op.16

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Les illuminations, Op.18 | Good Morning Britten

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

  4. PD says:

    Thank you for your kind comments. I am trying to recall if I played wrong notes on my recording – over 30 years ago now, and I don’t have a copy. However, for sure, Steven Osborne’s technique is ‘beyond reproach’. What exactly does the phrase mean regarding only one of the three pianists?

    • That’s a very good question! In retrospect I could (and should) have applied that term to all three, for I wasn’t aware of any mistakes at all.
      Is Young Apollo as difficult to play as it sounds?

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