Listening to Britten – Diversions, Op.21


Abstract I (1935) by John Piper (c) The John Piper Estate

Diversions, Op.21 for piano (left hand) and orchestra (July – October 1940, Britten aged 26. Revised 1950, 1953-4)

Theme
Variation 1: Recitative
Variation 2: Romance
Variation 3: March
Variation 4: Arabesque
Variation 5: Chant
Variation 6: Nocturne
Variation 7: Badinerie
Variation 8: Burlesque
Variation 9 a): Toccata I
Variation 9 b): Toccata II
Variation 10: Adagio
Finale: Tarantella

Dedication Paul Wittgenstein
Duration 25′

Selected audio clips – using the recording made by Julius Katchen and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Britten himself. With thanks to Decca

Theme

Variation I: Recitative

Variation III: March

Variation VI: Nocturne

Variation X: Adagio

Variation XI: Tarantella

Background and Critical Reception

The pianist Paul Wittgenstein made the utmost of the awful circumstances of a wartime injury, in which he lost his right arm. After the First World War, he developed his technique to such a formidable standard that he could commission works from several leading composers of the 20th century, among them Richard Strauss (Parergon), Prokofiev (Piano Concerto No.4), Hindemith (Piano Music with Orchestra, Op.29), Korngold (Piano Concerto for the left hand), and, perhaps most famously, Ravel (the Piano Concerto for the left hand of 1930).

Britten, then, approached a commission from the pianist with the knowledge that he was following in a distinguished line, and also with the forewarning that Wittgenstein had rejected the works by Prokofiev and Hindemith on the grounds that he didn’t understand them. As Robert Matthew-Walker points out, in his booklet note for Steven Osborne’s Hyperion recording of the piece, Britten’s approach is relatively close to Prokofiev’s, taking a ‘single line’ approach to the piano part rather than trying to make it sound like the work of two hands.

John Bridcut notes this too, saying that ‘all the same, the illusion persists – which is surely right, as it can then be judged as a musical rather than a technical feat’. For him ‘the emotional heart of the piece is the Adagio, which eases us into the whirlwind of the concluding Tarantella.

Wittgenstein gave the work’s first performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugène Ormandy on 16 January 1942.

Thoughts

Once again, Britten sets out on a familiar course of Theme and Variations, with the variants all having their own subtitles. This would have become an extremely routine procedure by now were he not so inventive at pulling a particular theme in so many different directions, and he does that once again here to make the Diversions an engaging and entertaining listen. Indeed it could be argued that the musical language here is more natural than many of his other ventures into the same form.

Because of the use of the piano left hand the lower textures of the piano and the orchestra prevail initially, but that suits the sound Britten was in favour of at the time, exploring the darker reaches of his orchestral forces. As the piece progresses there is some lighter relief on hand in the shape of the saxophone, which offers some comfort to the brittle octaves of the Burlesque, then combines with the bassoon to exchange plaintive thoughts at the end of the Adagio. The rocking motion of the Chant – very different to the Frank Bridge variation carrying the same name – is tender and affecting, as is the Nocturne, where we get glimpses of Copland.

The theme itself is a strident march – again, nothing particularly new in theory, but again Britten finds a new way of expressing this, and his use of fifths in the melody is cleverly done.

The Romance is very like Hindemith, and has a similar straight-faced charm and understated appeal to his work for piano and strings titled The Four Temperaments, itself a theme and variations. By the start of the first Toccata variation the mood has changed, and the temptation is to think that Britten is evoking the sound of distant gunfire, especially as the music becomes more mechanical afterwards.

Diversions is a very rewarding listen, a work that keeps some of the bravura and good spirits of the Piano Concerto, but tempers it with a bit more mature and realistic introspection. It is a substantial piece of work, but unfortunately remains a relative rarity. Let’s hope concert programmers put that right in the near future!

Recordings used

Julius Katchen, London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Leon Fleischer, Boston Symphony Orchestra / Seiji Ozawa (Sony)
Steven Osborne, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (Hyperion)
Peter Donohoe, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI Classics)

Britten’s recording is one of the very few examples of his work for Decca that is beginning to show its age, recorded as it was in 1954, although once again its authority is pretty much beyond reproach.

Of the three modern digital versions explored above Leon Fleischer is the most consistently rewarding, exploring some of Britten’s humour and combining impressive virtuosity with lyricism. Peter Donohoe plays very well but has a harsh sounding piano in the faster bits – although his and Rattle’s Adagio variation reaches heights of nobility. Steven Osborne and Ilan Volkov take a quick tempo, which does compromise the music’s breadth a bit in the theme, but their version really takes off as it progresses.

Spotify

Three of the four versions above are available on Spotify (Katchen, Donohoe and Fleisher), and the following playlist groups them together.

Also written in 1940: Berkeley – Symphony No.1

Next up: Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22

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One Response to Listening to Britten – Diversions, Op.21

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

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