Listening to Britten – Violin Concerto, Op.15


Britten with Pears in Brooklyn, 1940 – image courtesy of Britten 100

Violin Concerto, Op.15 (November 1938 – 20 September 1939, Britten aged 25-26. Revised October 1950; 1954; spring 1965)

1 Moderato con moto
2 Vivace
3 Passacaglia: Andante lento (un poco meno mosso)

Dedication Henry Boys (English critic, composer and teacher)
Duration 32′

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

1. Moderato con moto

2. Vivace

3. Passacaglia

Background and Critical Reception

The Violin Concerto has steadily been gaining popularity over the years, and is generally viewed as the emotional opposite to the Piano Concerto. It is less a display vehicle and more a deeply felt elegy for the Spanish Civil War, reflecting the time when its composition began. That said, it presents some formidable technical and emotional challenges for the soloists who take it on.

Britten, of course, had already written for the Spanish violinist Toni Brosa in the Suite and Reveille, both for violin and piano, yet here he was with a bigger, far more ambitious work where the violin was to assume almost total domination.

At the time of composition Britten himself said, ‘It is without question my best piece. It is rather serious I’m afraid.’

Violinists love this work. In an interview for violinist.com, Janine Jansen talks about how ‘you’re really giving everything through the whole piece, it’s such a tension from beginning to end. And everybody has such an important role to play’. The comments at the bottom of the piece testify to its steadily increasing public appeal, too.

As Thomas Gould highlights in his interview for this blog, the piece feels like one big sweep from first moment to last. ‘It’s incredible, especially when you get to the coda, because it feels beyond the limits of the violin, and you don’t feel like a violinist any more, more like a muezzin, who calls everybody to prayer. It’s got that quality. I don’t normally get so caught up and say this about most pieces!’

For his inspiration Britten draws on the concertos of Beethoven (in his use of the timpani at the very beginning) and, more prominently, Berg, sharing a concentrated and slightly elegiac feel. In an excellent piece for his book The music of Britten and Tippett, Arnold Whittall explains how in the last movement we see strong pointers towards Britten the opera composer. ‘There is the unmistakable sense of a consistent central character’, he says, ‘whose outpourings are controlled and shaped by the composer’s sure sense of formal proportion… because opera is about more than vocal display…the concerto seems to represent an essential preliminary in the broadest, and deepest, musical sense’.

Thoughts

The Violin Concerto carries an extremely powerful musical message. Everything builds towards the finale, with the violin in control at almost every turn – and there are very few passages where the instrument is not playing, a feature the piece holds in common with the Berg concerto.

There is a strong sense of anguish as the final movement Passacaglia begins, and here I began to feel as if I was in a massive church, the horns intoning a chant that gets taken up by the strings, as if the orchestra is slowly standing in response to the soloist’s pleas for peace. Here the music sounds more like Shostakovich than any Britten so far, but at no point is it derivative. The closing notes are, in a sense, infuriating, because Britten deliberately plays between the major and minor key. The home ‘note’ of D isn’t in question, but he creates continued uncertainty by refusing to resolve, and that stays with the listener afterwards.

Prior to this huge last movement the music moves between elegy and march, with the abrupt arguments of the second movement an indication of anger at war. Although Britten, now in New York, looks on at war from a distance, clearly his head is still full of worry and sentiments against it. The Violin Concerto, for me, translates all those feelings in to music.

Recordings used

Mark Lubotsky, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Theo Olof, Hallé Orchestra / Sir John Barbirolli (EMI)
Ida Haendel, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Paavo Berglund
Janine Jansen, London Symphony Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (Decca)
Anthony Marwood, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (Hyperion)
Lorraine McAslan, English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Collins)
Tasmin Little, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)

As John Bridcut says, ‘for a while the Violin Concerto languished on the sidelines: it was seen as gawky and difficult on the ear – heaven knows why. Today the available number of recordings is now in double figures’. Many of them are excellent, though time prevented me from exploring all of them.

In truth any of the above can be recommended, but special praise should be reserved for Janine Jansen, who conceives this work as Thomas Gould also sees it – one long sweep from beginning to end. That she pulls it off is no mean feat, with exceptional accompaniment from the LSO and Paavo Järvi. It is also a great idea to pair it with Beethoven, given the influences at work.

Of course Britten’s version is essential listening, for he brings in much orchestral detail that would otherwise not be heard to complement Mark Lubotsky’s excellent solo playing. The oldest recording is Theo Olof, playing Britten’s pre-revision version on a tape recorded in 1948, but the sound here is still good, once you get used to it. Ida Haendel’s high voltage version is also rightly revered, as is Maxim Vengerov with the LSO and Rostropovich, who opt for a very expansive third movement. Lorraine McAslan also deserves a mention.

Centenary year recordings are piling up, too, with both James Ehnes and Tasmin Little offering powerful renditions, the latter especially unwavering of tone. There is also a very strong recent recording by Anthony Marwood on Hyperion.

Spotify

A selection of these versions are available on to hear on the following playlist with the versions by Janine Jansen, Mark Lubotsky / Britten, Theo Olof, Ida Haendel, Lorraine McAslan, Maxim Vengerov, James Ehnes and Daniel Hope all included.

Also written in 1939: Shostakovich – Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54

Next up: Les illuminations, Op.18 (the chronology and Britten’s own numbering jumps around at this point!)

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5 Responses to Listening to Britten – Violin Concerto, Op.15

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  5. Ron Wotherspoon says:

    I just heard the Britten Violin concerto for the first time recently and have listened to it constantaly since. It has had an enormous effect on me. What an absolute colusus of a musician he was. Will make a point of hearing this live whenever the opportunity presents.

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