Listening to Britten – Introduction and Rondo Alla Burlesca, Op.23 no.1

(c) Brian Hogwood

Introduction and Rondo Alla Burlesca, Op.23 no.1 for piano (October – November 1940, Britten aged 26)

Dedication not known
Duration 9′


A clip from the version recorded by Britten with Clifford Curzon. With thanks to Decca.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten was beginning to experience a compositional block while in New York, but was still open to the idea of using new instrumentation – and so his only opus number dedicated to works for two pianos was cultivated. The second instalment of Op.23, the Mazurka Elegiaca, followed in the summer of 1941.

The Introduction and Rondo Alla Burlesca was the first work Britten wrote for the partnership of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. The two-piano duo gave its premiere in New York’s Town Hall on January 5, 1941, in the company of Milhaud’s Scaramouche. Perhaps because of its proximity to Milhaud’s three-movement romp, Britten’s work received a steady if unspectacular reception. Bartlett and Robertson, meanwhile, went on to premiere Britten’s Scottish Ballad later that same year.


Here we are, back in what seems to be Britten’s ‘American key’, D minor – shared by the Sinfonia da Requiem and the Violin Concerto. Yet the mood of this quite substantial piece is very different, with more humour – especially in the ‘wrong note’ of the closing phrase and in the recurring motif of the Rondo that keeps coming back like an insistent wasp. One for the earworms page, for sure!

The opening salvo of the Introduction bears a great similarity to Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5, in the same key, with its strident dotted rhythms and call to arms. As the piece progresses though the feeling is more intimate, as works for two pianos tend to be.

Recordings used

Benjamin Britten and Clifford Curzon (pianos) (Decca)
Stephen Hough and Ronan O’Hara (pianos) (Virgin Classics)

Clifford Curzon, who was to become a friend and recording ally of Britten’s, joined him for a Decca recording that exhibits a potent musical chemistry. Stephen Hough and Ronan O’Hara benefit from much cleaner recorded sound and more faithful pianos. Their version has more rhythmic definition, if not quite as obvious in its affection as the composer’s recording.


Britten and Curzon can be heard together here

Also written in 1940: Piston – Suite from The Incredible Flutist

Next up: The Salley Gardens

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1 Response to Listening to Britten – Introduction and Rondo Alla Burlesca, Op.23 no.1

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – String Quartet no.1 in D major, Op.25 | Good Morning Britten

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