Michele Mariotti and Alessandro Taverna play Britten Piano Concerto op 13 on Good Friday in Rome.
An early work written in 1938 receiving its first performance from the composer himself at the Proms under Sir Henry Wood and in the revised 1946 version Noel Newton-Wood (a name unjustly forgotten).
In 1939 Britten and Pears left for America with the air of war becoming ever more apparent in Europe.
It was revived in 1965 for Sviatoslav Richter who thanks to Britten was allowed out of Russia to take part in his Aldeburgh Festival where he and Rostropovich were regular visitors up to Britten’s early death in 1976.
His simple tombstone in the graveyard of Aldeburgh is a fitting tribute to one of the most important composers of the twentieth century.
Strangely his output for solo piano was very small but he will rightly be remember for his thirteen operas of which Peter Grimes in 1945 changed the course of opera creating a new dramatic art form.
His only solo piano works are the youthful Holiday Diary Suite and later he wrote a nocturne as a set work for the first Leeds International Piano Competition having been bullied to be on the jury too by the indomitable Fanny Waterman.
I was invited in 1973 ,whilst studying with Agosti in Rome ,to play them all over Italy by the British Council to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the composer.
It is fitting that Alessandro Taverna started his professional career many years later in 2009 winning recognition in the Leeds Competition.
Today he gave a superb performance to an audience sadly depleted for Easter in Rome.
All those present,and I was glad to see it being recorded,were able to appreciate Alessandro’s crystal clear virtuosity on a magnificent Fazioli concert grand.It may have been a depleted audience but that did not stop their enthusiasm insisting on an encore.He gave a scintillating performance of Friedrich Gulda’s jazz piece Play piano Play.
Benjamin Britten was a master of orchestration and it was the interplay between orchestra and piano that was so fascinating.
At one point just the viola double bass and flute and even the audacity,like the end of Beethoven’s Emperor, to have just piano and bass drum.
The virtuosity of Alessandro was at time exhilarating in its conviction and authority but it was in the quieter more reflective moments that he created a magic atmosphere of chamber music proportions.
Much helped by the superb conducting of Michele Mariotti,the highly applauded director of Rome Opera, who could draw such sensitive intimate playing from the S.Celia Orchestra contrasting with the sumptuous full orchestra that Britten also demands.
And sumptuous playing there was after the interval too with Tchaikowsky’s Second Symphony op 17 ‘Little Russian’.The wind section in particular gave some memorable performances and were singled out at the end by Mariotti after their exhilarating playing.Sumptuous sounds too from the string section.An orchestra that Pappano is bequeathing to Rome after many years of growing and discovering the joys of music making together .An orchestra that has learnt to listen to itself is a great orchestra indeed.Sir Anthony Pappano is moving to London to take over the reigns from Sir Simon Rattle who like Pappano had embarked on the same voyage of discovery with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra before moving to the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra,
The concerto was written in 1938 and then revised in 1945, including the replacement of the third movement. This was Britten’s first work for piano and orchestra, which he premiered as the soloist at a Promenade Concert in 1938. Dedicated to the composer Lennox Berkeley,the concerto is a bravura work that has gained more international attention in recent years.Britten described the piece as “simple and in direct form”.It does in fact stand comparison with Prokofiev’s First Concerto in D flat for its way of using the piano with an almost chiselled melodic effect in unison and also much of the virtuoso passage work.
The revised version premiered at the Cheltenham Festival on July 2, 1946. The London premiere was performed soon after at the Proms in Royal Albert Hall with Noel Mewton -Wood as the soloist performing with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron .With Britten’s agreement, a theme from the revised version was used by his colleague William Walton as the basis of a 1969 orchestral work, Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten.
The best-known recording of the concerto is by the English Chamber Orchestra with Sviatoslav Richter as the soloist and Britten conducting, from a 1970 performance at the Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, near Britten’s own home.There is also a 1957 recording supposedly of Moura Lympany with the Philharmonia under Herbert Menges which appeared in Italy in a 100 cd collection called Pianoforte for Fabbri .When I mentioned this to Dame Moura who had retired to Montecarlo she exclaimed that she had never played it.As it was coupled with the Rawsthorne Concerto that she did play the confusion was that the Britten was played by Jacques Abram and they appeared on the same HMV LP together.After all these years of thinking Dame Moura had forgotten .It is nice to know that she was of course right!Clifford Curzon when offered the European premier of the Khatchaturian concerto simply said give it to Moura she can learn it over night.And she did just that with the help of Uncle Tobbs (Tobias Matthay) and they are reported to have had such fun working on it together!
The work is scored for 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (II doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, cymbals, whip, bass drum, snare drum, tambourine, tenor drum, harp, and strings.
The four movements:
1. Toccata: Allegro molto e con brio
The first is the most typically ‘bravura’ movement of the concerto. Much of the melody is derived from a sequence introduced in the opening bars. As in the rest of the piece, the orchestra plays a major role. There is a significant cadenza, written with no clear time signature and only approximate bar lines, where glissandi are a key feature. A lyrical melody opens up, before rapidly building to a dramatic end. A typical performance lasts around thirty-five minutes
2. Waltz: Allegretto
3. Impromptu: Andante lento
Originally the third movement was a ‘Recitative and Aria’. There is another section marked ‘quasi cadenza’, again written with ambiguous bar markings.
4. March: Allegro moderato sempre a la marcia
Dotted rhythms and crushed notes are an important feature of this movement, and a whip-crack is heard throughout, as is musical quotation of the first movement. The music is much denser than the other movements.