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CD of the Week: The Young Britten

It’s great to see someone giving some attention to Benjamin Britten's early years. Britten often seems to be sidelined from discussions of serious 20th-century music, largely because he stuck to a basically tonal compositional language that was, in the 1950s and '60s, seen as old-fashioned, even effete. But Britten was not only a huge talent; he wrote some huge music (notably his early opera "Peter Grimes," already much discussed here). Recently released on the London Philharmonic Orchestra's in-house label, this disc of three of his early works (LPO 0037) shows some of his big exuberant brashness.

All three pieces here start with a flourish, a statement of “Here I am.” The first one is a rarity: a double concerto for violin and viola that Britten (himself a violist) wrote when he was 18, before his Op. 1 Sinfonietta, but that wasn’t actually performed until 1997, more than 20 years after his death. Certainly it has its coltish moments, when the composer runs out of ideas, or leaves the two string soloists, in the final movement, scrabbling a bit over the surface of the score. But there’s a lot here worth hearing. The juxtaposition of timbres alone, starting near the beginning when the winds play off of the two string soloists, hits the ear with a welcome freshness. And you can already hear gestures that the composer would return to throughout his oeuvre: slightly dissonant wind chords; a ruddy horn line; and a concluding sense of the elegiac that puts an odd cap on the piece’s energy.

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The other two pieces are even more assured, and certainly better known. The “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” is a delightful show-off work in which the young composer ranges with proud ownership across a panoply of musical styles; and “Les Illuminations,” a song cycle set to texts by Rimbaud, is widely if tritely acknowledged as Britten’s first masterpiece, a label which this recording gives one no reason to dispute.

This is young music, and it gets a young performance. Vladimir Jurowski, the London Philharmonic’s principal conductor, is much talked about as a young phenom; he certainly showed he was someone to be taken seriously at the Washington stop of his tour with the orchestra in February. He’s capable, serious, and intense. But his Britten readings are marked by a sense of adolescent energy, and this sometimes overrides the restrained, aching emotion that’s another important tool in this composer’s chest. Overall, the performance could stand to be a little more elegant – in, say, the Funeral March of the “Variations,” which have so much more poignancy in the composer’s own recording of them. Even the Wiener Walzer sounds a bit rustic. (Adding to the slight sense of rawness is the live recording; the pieces were recorded at two different concerts in two different halls more than a year apart, and the concert-hall ambience is especially clear in the two more recent pieces.)

Perhaps one reason Britten is underrated is that his vocal music, which is so brilliant, is so firmly associated with his life partner and muse Peter Pears, the tenor, who was a fine singer but whose sound, taut and a little forced, can be something of an acquired taste. (The hysterical Dudley Moore parody of the Britten/Pears style illustrates one aspect of it very well.) “Les Illuminations” is therefore often sung by tenors (Peter Pears and Ian Bostridge come to mind), but it was originally written for a soprano (and there are certainly other soprano versions on the market). Sally Matthews’s hearty voice, even slightly plummy in the lower register, is an interesting contrast to the familiar Pears recording; though it’s not as nuanced, and her French is often hard to understand. Still, it’s great to hear this music addressed with some freshness and energy, rather than with pursed-lipped finickiness about the text (Bostridge’s recording may be more accurate, but I’m not a big fan). Overall, I found this disc, despite its weaknesses, to represent a kind of Britten rehabilitation: it is welcome not only for its selection of works, but for its vitality.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 14, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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Any chance short audio excerpts could be provided with these CD reviews? To paraphrase, an excerpt is worth a thousand words...

Posted by: kashe | April 14, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

kashe, hit the link beneath the photo of the album and you can hear excerpts.

The Frank Bridge variations are fantastic. The work was performed at Strathmore recently by Julia Fischer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

I thought the performance on this CD was pretty good, but I agree it lacked refinement in spots. The bouree sounded a bit rough, for example.

I think Britten definitely merits the attention you're giving him, Anne. For a sublime musical experience, I recommend to your readers the CD of Britten conducting his piano concerto with Richter as the soloist (a CD which also has a performance of Britten conducting his violin concerto).

Another wonderful recording of work by Britten is Truls Mork's CD of the 3 Britten solo cello suites. Great stuff.


Posted by: shovetheplanet | April 15, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

kashe, we're working on getting an audio player up and running so I can offer more specific excerpts. In the meantime, as Mitch pointed out, I'll try to link to other sites that offer excerpts.

Mitch, I haven't heard the Richter recording - thanks for the recommendation. The Truls Mork CD is indeed pretty great.

Posted by: MidgetteA | April 17, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

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