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Benjamin Britten: a survey of the concertos

(April 2010)

In the run up to the Britten Centenary in 2013 there is growing interest in the composer’s concertos, with many top soloists adding the works to their repertoire.

Two acclaimed new recordings of Britten’s Violin Concerto by Frank Peter Zimmermann (Sony Classical 88697 43999) and Janine Jansen (Decca 478 1530) have entered the catalogue over the past year, joining the classic Ida Haendel interpretation and those by Vengerov and Mordkovitch, with Midori and Hilary Hahn among violinists performing the concerto regularly in concert. Gramophone described how “Zimmermann’s involving treatment of the cadenza leads to a deeply eloquent account of the concluding Passacaglia, which contains some of Britten’s most plangent inspiration… an absorbing and thoroughly commendable release.”

Janine Jansen’s recording (coupled with the Beethoven concerto) will have introduced many new audiences to Britten’s Violin Concerto, as it reached No.3 in the Top 100 album chart in The Netherlands, ahead of Tina Turner, the Backstreet Boys and Madonna. BBC Music Magazine noted how “Jansen has championed the concerto, performing it whenever and wherever she can. The searing passion of the work written in the early days of World War II, its emotional depth and its virtuosic violin writing make it the perfect vehicle for Jansen’s intensely expressive playing.”

Steven Osborne’s stunning disc of the complete Britten piano concertos has been garnering prizes, including the Gramophone Award for 2009’s best concerto recording and a German Record Critics’ Award (Hyperion CDA67625). The Daily Telegraph thought the performance of the Piano Concerto “a match for the composer-conducted classic recording by Sviatoslav Richter” and The Times described how Osborne “dazzles in the long, unrelentingly fast first movement … He plays the sour second movement with breezy nonchalance, the third with a heavy improvisatory tread and the Prokofiev-like March with mock-heroic fanfares and percussive virtuosity”.

Osborne was delighted also to highlight Britten’s neglected Diversions, written for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein and premiered in Philadelphia in 1942. In a Gramophone interview he described this left-hand concerto as “an absolute jewel, there’s so much quality and such an array of characters in that amazing piece”. The disc is completed by Young Apollo, Britten’s glittering ‘fanfare’ for piano, string quartet and string orchestra (published by Faber Music), and one hopes Osborne will soon find a fellow pianist for the Scottish Ballad for two pianos and orchestra to complete his Britten concerto odyssey.

Younger generations of cellists have provided new interpretations of the Cello Symphony, alongside that by the work’s dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich. Recordings include those by Truls Mork, Steven Isserlis, Raphael Wallfisch, Julian Lloyd-Webber and Tim Hugh, with Alban Gerhardt acclaimed for his recent performances in concert.

Piano Concerto op.13 (1938)  33’

Violin Concerto op.15 (1938-39)  31’

Diversions op.21 (1940)  30’
for piano (left hand) and orchestra

Scottish Ballad op.26 (1941)  13’
for two pianos and orchestra

Cello Symphony op.68 (1963)  34’

Other Britten Centenary surveys:
> Orchestral music
> Vocal music





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