Britten: Piano Concerto; Violin Concerto
In the wake of Britten’s operatic output, it’s easy to forget how ambitious and virtuosic his early instrumental music was. The vivacious Piano Concerto was described rather patronisingly by Sviatoslav Richter as ‘a work full of youthful energy, written under the influence of Ravel and Prokofiev, perhaps a little immature, but extremely likeable in its English way’. His own performance with the composer in 1970 burns with a special fire, but here Howard Shelley and Edward Gardner create something more mercurial, Gardner conjuring that lithe, high-tension drama he has so successfully achieved with Britten’s stage works. The insouciant viola and clarinet solos which open the second movement ‘Waltz’ are irresistible, and Shelley moves from teasing to demonic as the movement begins to snarl. His ‘Impromptu’ opens with childlike solemnity before launching into its rhetorical display. While Steven Osborne’s recent recording (Hyperion) may be a touch more dazzling, here we have the opportunity to hear the bizarre original slow movement, a sort of juke box of 1930s dance music.
We also have a very special reading of the Violin Concerto, my ‘big heavy-weight concerto’, in the composer’s words. Its sheer extravagance and dreamy sensuality mark it out from the economy and control of more familiar Britten. This may not be a flawless reading (some of Tasmin Little’s double stopping being just short of immaculate), but Little and Gardner plumb its emotional heart in a performance of great passion and spontaneity. There’s a sense not just of supple flow from Little, but an incandescent commitment to the work. She finds something more febrile than James Ehnes (reviewed below) in the central Vivace, and Gardner draws it to a menacing climax. The range of dynamics is also wider, with barely audible pianissimos in the cadenza, while the ‘Passacaglia’ is allowed to dream its way into a profoundly moving meditation.