Listening to Britten – Alpine Suite


Redwing (c) Graham Catley, whose rather wonderful blog Pewit can be found here

Alpine Suite for recorder trio (February 1955, Britten aged 41)

1 Arrival at Zermatt
2 Swiss Clock (Romance)
3 Nursery Slopes
4 Alpine Scene
5 Moto perpetuo: Down The Piste
6 Farewell to Zermatt

Dedication Mary Potter
Instrumentation Three recorders: 2 descant and 1 treble
Duration 8′

Audio

A clip from each of the six movements can be heard on the All Music website, performed by The Flautadors and recorded on the Dutton Epoch label.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten was always quick to spot an opportunity for composition, even more so if one of his friends was involved. The Alpine Suite came about through a relatively unhappy accident. Britten, Pears and the artist Mary Potter were on a skiing trip to Zermatt, when Potter fell and injured her ankle. As she was confined to barracks Britten thought it would be chivalrous to write a piece of music for her to practice during the day, for performance in the evening.

And so began a short, six-movement work for the three recorders the trio had with them at the time.

It seems Britten enjoyed writing for the combination, for it provided him with an outlet away from the emotional heaviness of the stage works he had been writing for the last few years.

Thoughts

It is easy to imagine how the three of them would have enjoyed the perky Arrival at Zermatt, or the rather wistful Farewell to Zermatt that ends the suite some six minutes later. In between are a variety of dance-influenced pieces, something of a legacy owed to Gloriana in the marriage of dated rhythms and melodies with modern harmonies. The ticking of the Swiss clock (a Romance is rather charming, Nursery Slopes captures the skiiers’ early steps in a faltering fugue that gains confidence as it comes together, while Down The Piste has an unstoppable momentum, almost out of control.

It is doubtful that anybody would recognise these as Britten immediately without being told beforehand, but his compositional qualities are there – economy, melodic invention and – for seasoned listeners – a piece that spends much of its time in a bright and breezy C major. It provides a pleasant diversion in an otherwise emotionally fraught output of the early to mid-1950s.

Recordings used

The Flautadors (Dutton Epoch)

A very fine version from the Flautadors, sympathetically recorded, part of an imaginative collection of all the recorder works by Britten and Rubbra as part of an intriguing addition to Dutton’s Epoch label of British classical music.

Spotify

Unfortunately this piece is not available on Spotify, but a snippet of each movement (nearly half the entire work!) can be heard over on the All Music website as above.

Also written in 1955: Lutosławski – Dance Preludes (second version)

Next up: O solitude, my sweetest choice!

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