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Benjamin Britten at 100, Part IV: A great pianist left quality not quantity for his instrument

By John Terauds on March 10, 2013

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In this fourth peek at the legacy of Benjamin Britten during his 100th anniversary year, let’s listen to his music for solo piano. For someone who was an accomplished player, Britten didn’t write much for the instrument. It could be because he saw the piano in the way he used it: as a collaborator.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

The flip side of the situation is that, although there are only a half-dozen pieces for solo piano or piano with orchestra, the works are good.

The Piano Concerto, which is far more self-consciously showy than the bulk of Britten’s work, had its premiere at the Proms in 1938 — with a 24-year-old composer at the piano. He revised it at the end of the war, and it continues to enjoy a small but devoted following.

To help us imagine the 20-something Britten at the keyboard, here is young British sensation Benjamin Grosvenor playing the revised version (Britten replaced the original third movement with a section marked Impromptu) with the BBC Symphony and conductor Sir Andrew Lytton at London’s Barbican in January:

Let’s backpedal a little bit to Holiday Diary from the composer’s 21st year. It’s a picturesque, four-movement suite — I. Early morning bathe, Ⅱ. Sailing, Ⅲ. Fun-fair,  and Ⅳ. Night. Dedicated to Arthur Benjamin, it sounds beautifully fresh in the hands of Shura Cherkassky:

Britten’s Scottish Ballad is a concerto for two pianos, written for duo pianists Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, who were gracious hosts while the composer and his companion were in the United States. The piece was premiered by the duo in Cincinnati in 1941. Britten himself premiered it in England with the great Clifford Curzon at Royal Albert Hall during the Proms in the summer of 1943.

Here’s a performance by the Silivanova-Puryzhinskiy Piano duo and International Youth Symphony Orchestra of the Taurida Capella under conductor Mikhail Golikov:

Britten also wrote solo music for Robinson and Bartlett during the early years of the war. Here is the composer and Curzon in a recording of Introduction and Rondo alla Burlesca, written in 1940, followed by the Mazurka Elegiaca, commissioned after the death of pianist and Polish prime minister Ignacy Jan Paderewski in 1941:

We looked at Diversions, the concerto for left hand he wrote for Paul Wittgenstein in 1941 in Part II of this series (which you’ll find here).

Twenty years went by before Britten wrote another piece for solo piano. Commissioned for the inaugural Leeds International Piano Competition in 1963 was Night Piece-Notturno, delicately played here by Anthony Goldstone:

FURTHER READING

There is wealth of information at the Britten-Pears Foundation website, here.

You can find the previous installments of this series here:
Part I; Early orchestral music
Part II: Dance
Part III: Choral

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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