Britten on Record: Debussy: Sonata for piano and violin in G minor (BBC Legends)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Live recording: Aldeburgh Church, Aldeburgh, 27 June 1959
1 Allegro vivo
2 Intermède: Fantasque et léger
3 Finale: Très animé
Clips from the performance can be heard at the All Music website.
Background and Critical Reception
As part of their 1959 Aldeburgh Festival concert, from which we have already appraised performances of Haydn and Schubert, Britten and Yehudi Menuhin performed the Violin Sonata by Debussy. This must have been poignant to Britten, for this wartime work was among the music performed by the pair on their visit to the concentration camp in Belsen in 1945.
This is widely regarded as a turning point in Britten’s life, affecting heavily the music he composed after the experience – which began with The Holy Sonnets of John Donne.
Debussy was a composer for whom Britten retained strong admiration. He studied L’isle joyeuse for his ARCM exam in 1933, while his teacher Frank Bridge gave him a score of Pelléas et Mélisande for his 21st birthday. Recorded instances of Britten performing Debussy are however limited, as we will discover – but they are of exceptional quality, performed as they are with Mstislav Rostropovich (the Cello Sonata), Sviatoslav Richter (En blanc et noir) and the English Chamber Orchestra (Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune).
As outlined in previous reviews of this disc, the sound quality is a little scratchy (the original, not the remaster) but that still does not prevent an enjoyment of the keen emotion Britten and Menuhin bring to this piece.
The sonata is quite an elusive piece, portraying the uncertainty of war, and the two performers get to the nub of the second movement’s nervous tension in particular. Menuhin’s variation of tone is extremely notable, his technique outstanding in the flourishes that begin the finale, and Britten responds in kind. Tempi are relatively relaxed for a reading of this work, but there is no compromise in overall feeling, despite the extraneous audience noise.
The performance can be heard on Spotify, as part of a different album release, by clicking here.
Also recorded in 1959: Copland – Rodeo (New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein) (Columbia)
Next up: Schubert: Violin Sonata in A major D574