Violin Concerto (Britten)

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Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto, Op. 15 (written 1938–39) was given its premiere in New York, on March 29, 1940, by the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa with the New York Philharmonic conducted by John Barbirolli. A revised version of the concerto appeared in the 1950s, including alterations of the solo violin part prepared with the assistance of Manoug Parikian.

Structure[edit]

The concerto is written in three movements:

  1. Moderato con moto - Agitato - Tempo primo -
  2. Vivace - Animando - Largamente - Cadenza -
  3. Passacaglia: Andante Lento (Un Poco Meno Mosso)

This form, although in three movements, is highly unlike that of concertos from the Classical and Romantic eras. First used in the First Violin Concerto of Sergei Prokofiev, this design is also evident in the concertos of William Walton.

Analysis[edit]

The work opens with a series of timpani strokes, a reminder perhaps of Beethoven's Violin Concerto. The rhythm is taken up by the bassoon and other instruments, persisting as an ostinato throughout the entire work. The violin enters with a song-like lament, soaring above the orchestra. The music is soon interrupted by a more militaristic and percussive secondary theme.

The ensuing second movement, cast as a wild, moto perpetuo scherzo, unmistakably recalls Prokofiev. The movement culminates in an impressive cadenza which, while recalling musical material from both the first and second movements, acts as an organic link straight into the finale.

As the finale, Britten uses a passacaglia: a set of variations on a ground bass, in the tradition of the Baroque chaconnes by Purcell and Bach. The ground bass, tonally unstable, is initially introduced by the trombone, as the violin recalls its lyrical theme from the first movement. Individual variations unfold, taking up characters of song, dance, capriccio and march. By the end, the ground bass is reduced to chant-like reminiscences; the orchestra leaves hints of an unmistakable D major chord, while the soloist is left undecided in a trill between the notes F-natural and G flat.

Discography[edit]

Year Soloist Conductor
Orchestra
Format: Record label
Catalogue Number
1970 Mark Lubotsky Benjamin Britten,
English Chamber Orchestra
Audio CD: Decca
Cat: 417 308-2
1974 Rodney Friend John Pritchard,
,London Philharmonic Orchestra
Audio LP: EMI
Cat: CFP 40250
1977 Ida Haendel Paavo Berglund,
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Audio LP: EMI
Cat: ASD 3483

1997 Rebecca Hirsch Takuo Yuasa,
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Naxos
Cat: 8.553882
2001 Lydia Mordkovitch Richard Hickox,
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Chandos
Cat: CHAN 9910
2003 Maxim Vengerov Mstislav Rostropovich,
London Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: EMI Classics
Cat: 0724355751027
2004 Frank Peter Zimmermann Manfred Honeck,
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Sony
Cat: S70316C 88697439992
2005 Daniel Hope Paul Watkins,
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Warner Classics
Cat: 2564-60291-2
2009 Janine Jansen Paavo Järvi,
London Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Decca
Cat: 000289 478 1530 3
2011 Wanda Wiłkomirska Witold Rowicki,
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Audio CD: Orchestral Concert CDs
Cat: CD12/2011
2012 Anthony Marwood Ilan Volkov,
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Hyperion
Cat: CDA67801