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Britten: Violin Concerto, Double Concerto / Anthony Marwood, Lawrence Power, Ilan Volkov

Britten / Marwood / Power / Bbc Scottish Sym Orch
Release Date: 02/14/2012 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67801  
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Anthony MarwoodLawrence Power
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN Violin Concerto. Double Concerto. Lachrymae Anthony Marwood (vn); Lawrence Power (va); Ilan Volkov, cond; BBC Scottish SO HYPERION CDA 67801 (64:18)

Before playing this CD, I re-auditioned two earlier recordings of Britten’s Violin Concerto, op. 15. This work from his Canadian and American sojourn (1939–42) has recently been creeping toward a solid position in the repertoire, and now looks like becoming the most popular of Britten’s concertos. (For some concertgoers, Read more the showy Piano Concerto is too lightweight while the later Cello Symphony is too intractable.) The work is in three movements. Its scherzo is quite savage for this composer, while the passacaglia finale finishes on an ambiguous harmonic oscillation between major and minor. These factors have led commentators to suggest that the piece depicts the tension and uncertainty of the early war years. Britten revisited the work several times; his final revision was in 1965.

The concerto was rarely recorded before Britten’s own 1970 Decca taping with the Soviet violinist Mark Lubotsky. The latter never became a big-name soloist (at least in recording terms), but he plays the solo part very well, and nobody shapes the accompaniment like the composer himself. In a 2002 recording, Maxim Vengerov displays terrifically secure intonation, and is guided by Mstislav Rostropovich, who worked closely with Britten. Theirs is a romantic, languorous approach. In particular, they draw out the final passacaglia to a good two-and-a-half minutes longer than Lubotsky and Britten, and more than three minutes longer than Marwood and Volkov.

The new recording could not be more of a contrast. Much as I love Vengerov’s lyrical indulgence—and the piece can certainly take it—Marwood and Volkov bring a compelling modernist energy to this music. By pausing for slightly longer than usual between the opening timpani statements, Volkov creates dramatic tension right from the start. In the passage where the orchestral strings recap the violinist’s opening melody, the woodwind figures are spiky interruptions rather than decoration. This urgency of attack and detailed characterizing of musical figures continue in a swift second movement and a powerful finale. Throughout the concerto, the performance gains strength by refusing to linger. Marwood’s playing is articulate, and he is completely unfazed by technical challenges. Helped by a natural concert balance, his violin sounds at times like the helpless voice of reason besieged by forces beyond his control, very much in line with a wartime concept of the work. This stunning performance makes excellent versions from Janine Jansen and Daniel Hope sound somewhat generalized by comparison.

The other two works come from the extremes of Britten’s career. The Double Concerto was composed in 1932 when the composer was still in his teens and studying at the Royal College of Music. It was pretty well complete apart from finishing touches when Britten abandoned it to work on his Sinfonietta, op. 1. Colin Matthews edited the concerto and it premiered in 1997 under Kent Nagano, who subsequently went on to record it with star soloists Gidon Kremer and Yuri Bashmet. The concerto is in three movements, concluding (unusually) with an Allegro scherzando . The youthful brio of Britten’s early work is evident, as are several fingerprints that would characterize his mature music: clear and telling orchestration with an avoidance of fully scored tuttis ; idiosyncratically ambiguous tonal harmony; use of short rhythmic and melodic motifs, and a penchant for quasi-recitative passages. Nagano’s premiere recording notwithstanding, Marwood and Power prove to be even more deeply in touch with the composer’s world, especially in introspective moments, while Volkov (with his first-rate BBC Scottish Orchestra) again brings an urgency to the proceedings, so the structure of the piece never sags.

Lachrymae, Britten’s “reflections” on a song of John Dowland, was written for viola and piano in 1950. These were Britten’s two instruments and the combination clearly had personal resonance for him. The 13-minute work is one of his loveliest, and is most moving in its final bars, where Dowland’s heartfelt tune is played and harmonized without variation. The arrangement for viola and string orchestra was one of the composer’s last musical tasks, undertaken in 1976 when he was too ill to attempt a new composition. I have long treasured a recording by the velvet-toned French violist Gerard Caussé, but this one conveys even more sensitively the personal nature of the work. Lawrence Power is a great advocate for British viola music, having recorded concertante works by Walton, Vaughan Williams, Rubbra, and others for Hyperion. Lachrymae is a significant addition to his discography.

Some people still remain Britten-resistant, even one or two of Fanfare ’s reviewers. This is the disc I would recommend to them, because: It reveals the precision and clarity of thought that characterized Britten’s music throughout his life, it reminds us what a master he was of instrumental music, it contains one of his undoubted masterpieces … and the performances are marvelous.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Violin in D minor, Op. 15 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Anthony Marwood (Violin)
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939/1958; England 
Concerto for Violin and Viola by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Anthony Marwood (Violin), Lawrence Power (Viola)
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: circa 1931 
Lachrymae for Viola and Strings, Op. 48a by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Lawrence Power (Viola)
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1950/1976; England 

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