Britten Double Concerto; (Les) Illuminations; Bridge Variations

Jurowski tackles some of Britten’s early works with uneven results

Author: 
Andrew Achenbach

Britten Double Concerto; (Les) Illuminations; Bridge Variations

  • Double Concerto for Violin and Viola
  • Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge
  • (Les) Illuminations

Britten was an 18-year-old RCM student when he wrote his Double Concerto for violin and viola, but it seems the traumatic experience of conducting his almost exactly contemporaneous Op 1 Sinfonietta (and the two works do indeed share some striking stylistic and schematic traits) put him off ever completing the full score (Colin Matthews finally orchestrated it in 1997). Jurowski and his exemplary LPO principals extract every ounce of eloquence and sparky originality from Britten’s youthful inspiration.

For the two remaining items we switch from the QEH to the RFH. In the Frank Bridge Variations, string timbre acquires a slightly hard edge and lack of ripeness that tend to point up a niggling suggestion of aggressive display about this music-making. Granted, there are many stimulating touches – and the playing per se is wonderfully secure – but some unadvisedly overlong pauses between the individual movements disrupt the flow in a conception that ultimately fails to add up to the sum of its (at times admittedly brilliant) parts. I crave the organic sweep, humanity and inevitability of Britten’s own illimitably searching 1967 Decca recording with the ECO (1/87, still the interpretative touchstone over 40 years on).

I’m even less happy with the present Les illuminations, which finds Sally Matthews falling well short of the ideal in her clarity of diction and attention to dynamic nuance (that tricky glissando sigh at the end of “Phrase” is not remotely ppp dolce as marked). On this evidence she has some way to go in finding the key to Britten’s savage parade – no match, certainly, for the towering authority and understanding demonstrated by Heather Harper on her classic 1970 account with Marriner and the Northern Sinfonia on EMI British Composers (justly lauded by AFC in his admirable “Gramophone Collection” on this endlessly fascinating masterpiece – 3/09). All told, something of a mixed bag, to say the least.

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