Scottish Ballad, Op.26 for two pianos and orchestra (July – 27 October 1941, Britten aged 27)
Dedication Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson
Background and Critical Reception
If at first it seems odd that Britten should be writing a piece about Scotland while based in California, this was again a situation of him writing a piece with specific performers in mind. These were the husband and wife piano duo of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, whose Scottish ancestry gave Britten the inspiration for this ‘concertante’ piece.
John Bridcut, usually so enthusiastic over Britten’s works, finds this a very difficult piece to enjoy, talking of ‘the ‘eternal’ funeral march, and not in a good way! ‘A short piece it may be, but it does go on’, he says! Neil Powell also struggles with the ‘bombastic’ opening, delivering a polite but withering verdict that ‘it doesn’t seem to have anything to say’.
The first performance of the Scottish Ballad was given by the two dedicatees, with the Cincinnatti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugene Goossens.
There is a slightly odd sense of identity in Britten’s later American works, as if his heart and mind are in different places – which in a sense they were as he was feeling increasingly homesick for England by the time this work was completed. Yet with the national labels he was giving pieces – Canadian Carnival, Scottish Ballad, the eventually American Overture – there is no firm musical statement that tie them and the music together.
The big but ultimately empty statements with which the Scottish Ballad opens crash in with the brittle sound of the two pianos, like overblown film music, before the music settles into a more dreamy state – which, as John Bridcut rightly says, takes a long time to establish itself. There are some nice tunes here but they drift past incidentally, until the pace picks up. Then there is a passage from 11′ that sparkles briefly, Britten using the two pianos brilliantly, before setting himself through shimmering orchestral textures towards the key of Young Apollo, A major, and a big, ovation-gathering finish.
It’s not subtle by any means, and not at all the strongest of his pieces, despite the fleeting moments of inspiration.
Peter Donohoe and Philip Fowke (pianos), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI Classics)
Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir (pianos), L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Sergiu Comissiona (Decca)
Two recordings that make the best of the piece, with Donohoe and Fowke getting the nod due to their superior recorded sound.
Peter Donohoe and the CBSO under Rattle can be heard here
Also written in 1941: Glenn Miller – Chattanooga Choo Choo
Next up: The crocodile