Mazurka Elegiaca, Op.23 no.2 for two pianos (June – July 1941, Britten aged 27)
Dedication not known
A clip from the version recorded by Britten with Clifford Curzon. With thanks to Decca.
Background and Critical Reception
This piece – Britten’s only Mazurka – is something of a happy accident. When inviting him to write a piece to mark the passing of Polish composer-pianist Ignace Paderewski, Britten’s publisher Ralph Hawkes asked in a telegram for a ‘two piano piece’ instead of what he really wanted, which was two pieces for piano!
Britten responded with a work for the husband and wife team of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, for whom he had begun to write in America, and for whom Martinu had also written.
John Bridcut makes a pertinent point, identifying the piece as ‘a lament for Poland’s predicament: its tenderness is tinged with violence, and in the middle the piece seems to hang by a thread’.
Britten’s tribute to one of Poland’s foremost composers – and pianists – quickly assumes the mantle of Chopin in its slightly doleful theme. It takes a key – A flat major – often used by the composer too.
It is, overall, quite a cold piece – not emotionally detached, but with a chill running through it. The graceful writing of the outher sections rejects the idea that music for two pianos ought to be brash and percussive, and in a sense this approach reminds me of Debussy’s En blanc et noir, which Britten loved to play and performed at Aldeburgh with Sviatoslav Richter.
The middle section is disorienting, and while it is emotional doesn’t seem at all sure of the direction it wants to take, building to some pretty brutal hammering before intentionally casting the listener adrift, lost in space. It is a great relief to return to the music of the beginning after that, but the turbulence is not wholly forgotten. A strangely affecting piece.
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 1941: Weill – Lady in the Dark
Next up: String Quartet No.1 in D major, Op.25