Britten at the Proms – Violin Concerto

(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

It is still a surprisingly rare occurrence to hear English music performed by non-British ensembles, and it raises the old question. Does English music travel well abroad? On the evidence of this and the previous day’s Camerata Nordica Proms matinée, the answer is yes.

Britten was arguably our most continental 20th century composer – at least in his approach to writing music. Although Holst and Bantock could claim to have travelled farther and more often, Britten it was who consistently wrote in a style that showed his awareness of composers from continental Europe and America – although of course his music grew to picture his habitat with startling clarity. This particular Prom offered a clever juxtaposition of England and France, with Britten – with some help in a tribute from Arvo Pärt – was laid next to Berlioz and Saint-Saëns.

The Violin Concerto is a ‘continental’ work, written in America but remembering the Spanish Civil War. This performance, from Janine Jansen and the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Paavo Järvi, took the piece closer to the world of Berg than I have ever heard in the opening pages. Jansen and Järvi have already recorded the piece for Decca, with the London Symphony Orchestra, but here the work’s status as an In Memoriam was ever more vivid, and with Jansen and the orchestra both operating at a relatively soft dynamic, the mood was one of elegiac reverence.

The first movement brought out the detail of Britten’s soloistic writing, the bassoons accompanying the sweet first violin solo placed in sharper focus. Once the march got into gear the strings were relatively roughshod, bows on the edge of the string, but because of the slow tempo of the outer movements this only seemed to last for a fraction before we were back in slower music, the strings in a darkened reverie. Järvi varied the speed more here too.

With this close attention to orchestral detail in the middle foreground, Jansen reaffirmed her status as one of this work’s primary interpreters. Reprising her view of the piece as one continuous span, she played with great sincerity and sensitivity, her sound not always the biggest but leaving the listener hanging on every note. The cadenza had full authority, and here the dynamic swelled, but the closing pages were profoundly moving as Britten moved between the major and minor key.

Prior to this we heard Arvo Pärt’s tribute, the Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Järvi is a specialist in Arvo Pärt’s music, and made the most of its dynamic extremes with a softly voiced opening that grew inexorably with the same, slightly distorted A minor descending scale, becoming a powerful tribute. Pärt has spoken of the ‘unusual purity’ of Britten’s music, regretting that he did not take a chance to meet the composer, but this homage was the next best thing, growing in tension and power as Järvi and the orchestra stretched out the notes.

Jansen’s tone in the heights exceptionally secure, with Järvi paying very close attention to the orchestral accompaniment. Thoroughly convincing cadenza, then the clouds gathering during the Passacaglia towards a fiercesome drum roll.

In the second half we enjoyed a bright and energetic performance of Berlioz’s Le Corsaire overture, again quite softly voiced, before moving on to a vibrant performance of the Symphony no.3 in C minor by Saint-Säens – the ‘Organ’ symphony. This was a fresh interpretation, with some nice organ voicing from Thierry Escaich in the Adagio, while the theme of the famous finale twinkled with its two-piano dressing over the top. The tumultuous reception from the audience indicates the level of success this performance enjoyed – and paved the way for an effervescent encore, the ‘Galop’ from Bizet’s suite Jeux d’enfants.

A satisfying balance, then, of seriousness and humour – with a very strong case presented for why Britten’s Violin Concerto should be heard at the Proms more often than its recent history of four performances in the last 25 years.

You can listen to Janine Jansen’s performance of the Violin Concerto, with the rest of the concert from the Orchestre de Paris and Paavo Järvi, through the BBC Proms website. Janine Jansen’s recording of the concerto, with Paavo Järvi conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, can be found on Spotify by clicking here.

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