Great Britten from the jump — Violin Concerto, 'Spring Symphony,' shorter works in new recordings

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Monday May 13, 2024
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Great Britten from the jump — Violin Concerto, 'Spring Symphony,' shorter works in new recordings

Simon Rattle's farewell concert with the London Symphony Orchestra was, of course, Mahler's Ninth Symphony, the farewell of all farewells. But on a happier note, Rattle led a performance of Benjamin Britten's choral "Spring Symphony" that may have jerked fewer tears but also came as a reminder of London's loss to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. That performance has been captured in a recording on the orchestra's own label, London Symphony Live.

At the same time, Harmonia Mundi has released a new live recording of Britten's Violin Concerto, with Isabelle Faust as soloist. As in the case of "Spring Symphony," the recording is rounded out with shorter pieces that demonstrate how fine a composer Britten was from the jump.

As a conscientious objector to World War II, Britten fled Britain for the United States with his muse and lifelong lover and music partner, Peter Pears. His return to England, at war's end, came with the work that would establish him forever in the repertoire of contemporary opera, "Peter Grimes."

Composer Benjamin Britten  


The works that complete the albums are, with "Spring Symphony," the "Sinfonia da Requiem" and "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." The recording of the concerto, under the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (the orchestra Rattle now leads) under Jacob Hrusa, includes the "Reveille" and the Suite for Violin and Piano, with her frequent collaborator, Alexander Melnikov, and the first-ever recording of Two Pieces for Violin, Viola, and Piano, with Melnikov and Boris Faust on viola. These are not, lest it need saying, "fillers."

Enduring strings
Britten later wrote that he might have "bit off more than he could chew" with the Violin Concerto, which had its premiere in the U.S. in 1940 (so he revised it at least three more times), and has established itself in the active repertoire ever since. It's new to many concertgoers, but violinists can't keep their hands off it, god bless 'em.

It's unaccountable how violinist Isabelle Faust, who has an active career in Europe and a reputation for the combination of integrity and penetration of her playing, should be so relatively little known here. Jacob Hrusa, in complete sympathy with her, would be my dream new music director at the San Francisco Symphony, where he has appeared, but he, too, is kept busy across the pond.

Isabelle Faust (photo: Felix Broede)  

Together they offer the kind of live performance of the concerto that burns the fat from your brain. As always, Faust cuts to the core with a keen, individual account of the solo part, probing but without a hint of eccentricity.

Hrusa conducts with the solid sense form, that quality the composer said eluded him at first. The piece ends with an arching Passacaglia, a form Britten was to mine in many of his subsequent instrumental pieces, which both musicians realize at full depth.

It's characteristic of Faust performing's style that she cuts through the devilish Vivace second movement, calling no attention to her virtuosity and focusing entirely on the music. She and Hrusa plumb the depths of the Passacaglia without any gratuitous heavy breathing.

Post-war spring exuberance
Britten's pacifist heart was shattered by World War II, even if the time with his friend, the poet W. H. Auden, in the States when Britten "objected" there, was heartening. Back in Britain, "Spring" came in 1948.

Serge Koussevitsky, the work's dedicatee, led the premiere, in 1949, in Amsterdam. The Symphony won favor from the start; any inhibitions in programming it today are due to the very large forces it takes to present it.

The 12 movements of the three-part symphony are set to mixed authors, largely 16th- and 17th-century British writers —and Auden's "Out on the lawn I lie in bed"— joined to make a kind of playlet, with the solo singers taking the roles. Again, Britten despaired of the piece until he thoroughly revised it —including some changes of text— but expressed pleasure with the final result. But against whatever odds, the individual pieces do meld into a coherent, uplifting statement.

Some shadows fall on this spring, but the motive vision is that of a convincing rejuvenation. It seems wrong, somehow, to single out a single soloist from among the cast —Elizabeth Watts, Alice Coote, and Allan Clayton— but it would be equally grievous not to give the nod to the predictably marvelous Clayton, singing the part Britten wrote for Pears.

A good chorus is the glory of any symphony orchestra, and with "Spring Symphony" the LSO's gives everything for its beloved but departing maestro. Britten's exemplary writing for children's chorus features three Tiffin children's choruses.

Perhaps my most heterodox opinion regarding Britten's music is that it reaches a peak at the "church fable" "Noye's Fludde," which also centers on a large children's chorus. Here, the Tiffin kids, led by James Day, sing from their hearts (and through cupped hands) in a taste of what is to come.

What binds and elevates this particular live performance is the conducting of Simon Rattle, an old hand at the piece and here in his own, warm, if valedictory glory. Like Leonard Bernstein before him, Rattle is a natural educator, and his leadership of "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" (this segment on the music of the greatest English composer before Britten, Henry Purcell) is, in all the right ways, textbook. His trenchant reading of the Sinfonia da Requiem is appropriately excoriating.

Isabelle Faust regularly partners with pianist Alexander Melnikov, and together they make some magic with the shorter compositions. The Two Pieces for Violin, Viola, and Piano won't change anyone's assessment of Britten's music, but hints of great Britten are all there.

Got Butterflies?
If some dire emergency kept you from the Met Live in HD telecast of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," with the incomparable Asmik Grigorian (joined by a terrific Jonathan Tettelmen as Pinkerton), no need for your own hara kiri. There will be an Encore presentation on May 15 (check for time), and an audio-only broadcast will be on BBC's Radio 3 for a month.

Benjamin Britten, Violin Concerto, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrusa, conductor, plus shorter violin pieces, Harmonia Mundi.

Britten, Spring Symphony, Missa da Requiem, and The Young People's Guide to the Orchestra (Purcell), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Tiffin children's choruses, LSO Live, through

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