Britten Piano Concerto; Diversions

A great case made for Britten’s piano works, and a pianist to challenge Richter

Author: 
Arnold Whittall
Britten Piano Concerto; Diversions

BRITTEN Piano Concerto; Diversions

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, 3rd Movement (orig 1938 version)
  • Young Apollo
  • Diversions

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.

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