Listening to Britten – Night Piece (Notturno)


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Night Piece (Notturno) for piano (ca April – May 1963, Britten aged 49)

Dedication not known
Duration 6′

Audio clips of the recording made by Michael Dussek. With thanks to Hyperion.

Background and Critical Reception

It remains a matter of some surprise that Britten did not write more music for piano solo. This was almost certainly due to his own comfort zone, such as it was, as a pianist himself, as he felt much happier in partnership with Peter Pears or, latterly, Mstislav Rostropovich and, in years to come at the Aldeburgh Festival, Sviatoslav Richter.

Perhaps not surprisingly then it took a commission to awake his solo piano ‘slumber’, in the form of a test piece requested by the Leeds International Piano Competition. Typically, though, Britten did not go for outright virtuoso display as the principal feature of his piece – rather he went for an approach where control and musicianship were the disciplines under scrutiny, again echoing his own role at the piano.

Eric Roseberry, in his booklet notes for the Hyperion recordings of Britten’s piano music, describes the piece as ‘a miniature pendant to the preoccupations of the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, the Nocturne and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’

Thoughts

Britten’s nocturnal thoughts extended to every corner of his compositional repertoire in the early 1960s, be it on the operatic stage or in front of a single piano – and this example is one of the most atmospheric of all.

The pianist spends the six minutes lost in thought, distracted by louder nocturnal noises in the central semi-cadenza, but with a relatively clear structure to some of these thoughts. It is unusual and refreshing for a competition piece to have less in the way of virtuosity, but the skill of the pianist lies in creating the night time mood and maintaining it, even as the dynamics grow quieter.

There are similarities with the night music of Debussy and Bartók here, perhaps inevitably, but Britten is by now so sure of his musings in the small hours that they are incidental. What we have as a result is a piece that is ideal to hear before drifting off to sleep – soft and largely comforting, but with that minor worry at the back of the head that you might still be awake in an hour or so!

Recordings used

Stephen Hough (piano) (Virgin Classics)
Michael Dussek (piano) (Hyperion)
Anthony Goldstone (piano) (Divine Art)

There are few recordings of the Night Piece, but each of these examples are extremely good – and you could not go wrong with either Anthony Goldstone, Stephen Hough or Michael Dussek, both of whom exhibit excellent pedal control as well as lightly brushed melodic phrases.

Spotify

Dussek’s recording is not available on the streaming service, but Stephen Hough can be heard here, while Anthony Goldstone is here, part of an intriguing and rewarding disc called Britten Resonances, with music from Britten’s teachers Bridge and Ireland and his good friend Lennox Berkeley.

Also written in 1963: Tippett – Concerto for Orchestra

Next up: Cello Symphony, Op.68

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