Britten's Piano Concerto
The Gramophone Choice
Coupled with Violin Concerto, Op 15
Mark Lubotsky vn Sviatoslav Richter pf
English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten
Decca British Music Collection download 473 715-2 (67' · ADD). Recorded 1970. Buy from Amazon
Just after Britten’s performances were released on LP in 1971, the composer admitted with some pride that Sviatoslav Richter had learnt his Piano Concerto ‘entirely off his own bat’, and had revealed a Russianness that was in the score. Britten was attracted to Shostakovich during the late 1930s, when it was written, and the bravado, brittleness and flashy virtuosity of the writing, in the march-like finale most of all, at first caused many to be wary of it, even to think it somehow outside the composer’s style. Now we know his music better, it’s easier to accept, particularly in this sparkling yet sensitive performance.
The Violin Concerto dates from the following year, 1939, and it, too, has its self-conscious virtuosity, but it’s its rich nostalgic lyricism which strikes to the heart and the quiet elegiac ending is unforgettable. Compared to Richter in the other work, Mark Lubotsky isn’t always the master of its hair-raising difficulties, notably in the Scherzo, which has passages of double artificial harmonics that even Heifetz wanted simplified before he would play it (Britten refused), but this is still a lovely account. Fine recordings.
Piano Concerto (incl both versions of the third movement). Young Apollo, Op 16. Diversions, Op 21
Steven Osborne pf BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov
Hyperion CDA67625 (71’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon
Commissioned as a 24-year-old to compose and perform a piano concerto for the 1938 Proms, Britten played safe. None of the edginess he might have filched from Bartók or Stravinsky, no Bergian angst: instead, the models are Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Ravel, and in these terms he doesn’t miss a trick, at least before the finale’s rather perfunctory final gallop. Most of the piece takes a genuinely fresh look at pianistic conventions, and Steven Osborne yields nothing to the great Sviatoslav Richter in the punchiness and fine-tuned filigree of his playing. No skating over the surface here, with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish SO adept at teasing out the music’s symphonic subtext, as well as its piquant orchestral effects.
Britten replaced the original slow movement in 1945, possibly because it spent too much time in waltz-like regions already visited in the second movement. This disc adds it anyway, alongside two other scores for piano and orchestra. Young Apollo (1939) was not heard for half a century after its premiere, perhaps discarded by Britten because its fanfare-like material was more effectively deployed in Les illuminations (also 1939). It’s a quirky piece, difficult to programme, a euphorically unguarded response to Keats’s vision of male beauty in ‘Hyperion’.
Diversions is on a much grander scale, its style making even clearer those debts to Mahler which Britten had allowed to surface now and again in the concerto. The multifarious challenges to the single-handed soloist create moments of strong emotional depth and, as throughout the disc, Osborne and his colleagues make the best possible case for pieces which have tended to be placed on the outer fringes of the Britten canon. The recordings, made in Glasgow’s Henry Wood Hall, have ample depth of sonority and vividness of colour.