ViolinThe Violin Concerto, op.15, isn’t performed that often and has a reputation as being something of a difficult work, perhaps because it was influenced by the Berg concerto: Britten attended the Barcelona world premiere in 1936, and later went to further performances in London. But hearing Britten’s concerto live (I think for the first time) at the Albert Hall on Sunday night I was surprised. It was written for the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa as a lament on the Spanish Civil War, and so the soloist begins with a long and languid Spanish-flavoured melody, accompanied by an ominous martial rhythmic figure underneath. The martial elements take over completely before the sorrowful theme returns, this time played by the full string section, while the soloist takes on the military rhythms and some guitar-like imitations on top. It’s a characteristic Britten moment of great directness.

I sang the contemporary choral work Ballad of Heroes with the Oxford Bach Choir earlier in the year, and while that work has more of a propaganda feel about it (owing to the explicitly political words supplied by Auden and Randall Swinger), it, too, employs essentially simple means to similarly powerful effect. After a Shostakovich-like Scherzo, the concerto’s final movement returns to elegiac mood with a passacaglia, opening with a powerful series of downward scales in the full orchestra – recalling back to mind the opening work in the Prom, Avro Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, which is entirely based on similar downward scales. The soloist in the Britten was Janine Jansen (who has also made a recording of the work), with the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Paavo Jarvi. We saw many of the orchestra again later in the evening, once they had packed up and sought out – like us – pretty much the only restaurant still open on Kensington High Street after 10pm on a Sunday.

Advertisements