Britten on Record: Mozart: Piano Concerto no.19 in F major K459 (Pearl)
English Opera Group Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (piano)
Private tape recording in the collection of The Earl of Harewood, 1951
3 Allegro assai
Clips from each of the three movements can be heard over on the All Music website.
Background and Critical Reception
Mozart was one of Britten’s best-loved composers – but this is the only available recorded incidence of the composer taking the lead in a performance of one of his piano concertos. Britten directs his own, recently formed English Opera Group Orchestra in a recording that falls between the composition of Lachrymae (the version for viola and piano) and Six Metamorphoses on a theme of Ovid.
The Aldeburgh Festival was into its fourth year when this recording was made, though an exact date is not available to the booklet writer of the Pearl release. This may be because the recording is from a private tape belonging to The Earl of Harewood. In a note of caution to listeners, the producer Roger Beardsley explains, ‘Understandably, some deterioration has occurred over the years, although modern restoration techniques have removed most problems.’
Discussing Britten’s approach to Mozart in the same booklet, Jeremy Siepmann observes that ‘Britten played the role of Mozartian soloist with no sense of embarrassment, or evident discomfort – and this in spite of his near-legendary nervousness as a performer.’ Later, he argues, ‘No pianist was more ideally equipped to reveal the degree to which Mozart’s concertos are in fact chamber music writ large.’
There is a sense of pure enjoyment in Britten’s Mozart, which conveys the deceptive simplicity of the music. As any pianist performing Mozart will know, this is very hard to convey in performance, and many a soloist dreads taking on Mozart more than they might the likes of Rachmaninov.
The sound takes a while to adjust to – not surprising given the producer’s note above – and the pitch seems to be halfway between E and F, the latter being the concerto’s home key.
The orchestra sounds relatively small, and the woodwind are quite shrill because of the recorded sound, but the balance between the two forces is ideal. Britten plays with a beautiful line, with a real sense of freedom that includes some very tasteful rubato (slight fluctuations of tempo) here and there in the slow movement. The first movement sounds a bit like a finale given Mozart’s perky theme, and the dialogue between piano and orchestra is lovely.
The high speed right hand runs in the last movement must have been a delight to Britten to play, with their tumbling figurations, while he also enjoys the impish nature of this movement’s main theme.
This album is not available on Spotify.
Also recorded in 1945: Brahms – Symphony no.3 (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / George Szell) (Decca)
Next up: Schubert – 3 Lieder