Britten on Record: Schubert: Fantasy in C major, D934 (BBC Legends)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Live recording: Aldeburgh Festival – Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh, 16 June 1957
Andante molto –
Tempo I – Allegro vivace
Clips from the performance can be heard at the All Music website.
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s friendship with Yehudi Menuhin was cemented by July 1945, when the pair travelled to Germany to give a recital tour. This included a visit to the Belsen concentration camp, where they gave a concert – an occasion that haunted Britten for many years to come and which certainly affected his stance on life and war itself. It also directly inspired The Holy Sonnets of John Donne.
John Bridcut’s Essential Britten includes an eyewitness account of the recital from Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a survivor of the camp. ‘It goes without saying that Menuhin played faultlessly; he is, after all, Yehudi Menuhin. As for the accompanist, I can only say that I cannot imagine anything done more beautifully. He was completely unobtrusive and yet I found myself transfixed by him sitting there as if he wouldn’t say boo to a goose – but playing to perfection’.
Later Britten and Menuhin were captured by the BBC in a pair of recitals from the Aldeburgh Festival, this account from 1957 of Schubert’s Fantasy, coupled with sonatas from Haydn, Debussy and Schubert in 1959.
The Fantasy approaches from the cold in this performance, with very quiet, dappled piano playing from Britten that is mirrored by that of his partner.
Some of Schubert’s later work is difficult to fully understand (for me at least!), and the Fantasy I find an elusive piece, though undeniably impressive – feelings that it seems were shared by the audiences of Schubert’s day, who found its length and structure a bit of a problem.
The work certainly has its attractive and meaningful moments though, especially the theme and variations at the centre – and two especially enjoyable parts of this performance are a skittish variation that Menuhin clearly enjoys, and a sparkling variation in A flat major with a torrent of notes for the piano’s right hand, to which Britten is the equal.
The opening pages appear to be cut adrift, even though the tonality is clearly C major, but by the time the music has reached the A minor second section there is some appealing call and response between Menuhin and Britten’s right hand.
Schubert wrote the Fantasy shortly after the completion of the song cycle Winterreise, possibly Britten’s favourite work by the composer – and one he and Pears would later record for Decca.
The performance can be heard on Spotify, as part of a different album release, by clicking here.
Also recorded in 1957: Delibes – Coppélia (Suisse Romande Orchestra / Ernest Ansermet) (Decca)
Next up: Schubert – Three Songs: Die Sterne D939; Nachtviolen D752; Auflosung D807