By Alec Robertson (September 1938)
Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
Boyd Neel String Orchestra / Boyd Neel
On August 18  Benjamin Britten's new Piano Concerto in D was given its first performance at the Proms and was received by the audience with genuine enthusiasm. This is an encouraging verdict, for the Prom audience after all represents the norm of the music-loving public. They will be polite over a new work: but if they applaud vigorously the musically timid may be sure there is nothing to repel and much to attract.
That is the case with these Variations for String Orchestra. They were first performed at the Salzburg Festival in 1937 and again at the ISCM Festival, London, this year: and, until the performance of the concerto, were considered Britten's best work.
The composer was born at Lowestoft in 1913 and started to compose when still very young. Each one of his works, whether chamber, vocal, or orchestral music, shows a rare grasp of the medium and a remarkable mastery in one so young. Britten owes much to his friend and counsellor, Frank Bridge, and the master must feel well paid by the gift of this fine work from his young pupil.
Later Britten worked with John Ireland (composition) and Arthur Benjamin (piano) at the Royal College of Music. He has written a large amount of music of all kinds: music for church, theatre, film, radio, cabaret, and schools, many songs and a little piano music.
One might expect to find him eclectic, but in spite of a debt to Stravinsky in the way he achieves his effects, and a spiritual affinity to Mahler, and I think, a few hints from Prokofiev, a thoroughly individual personality emerges from the music.
Britten is not afraid to give his emotions free play. He is without the curse of English music, a kind of gentlemanly reserve. No true artist was ever a 'gentleman'. There is in these Variations passionate feeling, as well as keen satire, and a truly vital impulse. At the same time he says, like Sibelius, just as much as he feels he wants to say – and that with economy of effect – and then stops.
For the rest his writing shows remarkable resource and the presentation of the material is highly original.
The one small flaw I find in this work is the inclusion of the genre pieces in the style of Rossini, Viennese Waltz, etc. Delightful and witty as these are they disturb a little the spiritual temperature of the work and seem rather out of the picture.
The fine sweeping phrases of the Introduction and the lovely lead to the theme at once arrest attention. The plaintive theme itself is easily memorable. Its emotional aspects are intensified in the dark and passionate adagio, but in the next Variation, March (Part II), the composer achieves a complete contrast. 'The lower strings play the theme Martellato in dotted rhythms, while the upper strings utter laconic comments until they can come out with it forte.' (I quote here and elsewhere from Henry Boys' excellent analytical note.)
A Romance follows in the shape of a waltz, the theme being played pizzicato in the bass: though its presence there will easily pass undetected. The waltz itself (violins) is related to the theme. This record closes with the first of the genre pieces Aria ltaliana, a brilliant little Rossinian essay in the manner of the Can-Can from the Boutique Fantasque.
Part III opens with the one variation in which the contemporary harmony may cause a little uneasiness. A native of Mr Britten's county coming in while I was listening to it compared it to 'a thousand old cats'. The number is an exaggeration! Actually the unfair comparison was suggested merely by the effect of open strings played rather roughly and arpeggio-wise. This Variation, Bourree Classique, is really a clever bit of satire.
The Wiener Waltz which follows begins in an original manner, out of focus as it were, but has a charming tune for the cellos as its middle section. The chattering contribution of the violins is most effective, and the coda, with ghostly twitterings aloft, is a striking idea.
On Part IV the short Motu Perpetuo, one unison line divided among the instruments playing tremolando with abrupt cadence chords, is succeeded by the highlight of the work, the gorgeously sombre and passionate Funeral March. Here we have an indication of what lies in Britten's power to achieve if he has the staying power and the creative ability.
Part V begins with an originally conceived Chant, the theme given to united violas, and the other strings divided, the upper ones having artificial harmonics. Then comes the ingenious Fugue and finally, Part VI, Frank Bridge and Wagner join hands, for the theme is sung by the violins over a Tristan-esque figure.
The closing bars are the only point where the recording is a bit thin and dry. Elsewhere though the violin tone may be a bit edgey for some tastes in its upper reaches, the recording fully captures the spirit of an alert and vital performance, in which no point is missed. This string orchestra has really made remarkable progress under Boyd Neel and certainly it has never made a better recording than this.
Decca are doing splendid work in recording our younger composers and it is to be hoped that so fine a venture will not go unrewarded. But quite apart from that, Britten's work is really enjoyable for its own sake.