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Britten: Piano Concerto; Diversions; Young Apollo

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Concerto; Diversions;
Young Apollo
PERFORMER: Steven Osborne (piano);
BBC Scottish SO/Ilan Volkov

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Steven Osborne and Ilan Volkov launch into the Piano Concerto’s opening ‘Toccata’ at a headlong pace – one that turns out to be no quicker, however, than the top end of Britten’s metronome marking (crotchet 152 to 160). For all the remarkable velocity, the playing has weight and incisiveness too, and Osborne’s way with the two central movements, ‘Waltz’ and ‘Impromptu’, is equally sure. Also included is the original ‘Recitative and Aria’ slow movement that Britten rejected (over-discursive, by his stellar standards at least, but with some fine material). Only the ‘March’ finale here disappoints. In Britten’s recording this comes across as an anti-fascist statement as trenchant as any of its pre-war generation. While Osborne again respects the metronome marking exactly, the music’s menace is somehow not captured. The problem in Young Apollo, composed in 1939 and then withdrawn, relates not to Osborne’s scintillating skills, but to the work’s own limitations. Even for Britten, the idea behind this virtuoso experiment in monotonality proved too restrictive: the music just doesn’t go anywhere. Diversions, for left-hand piano and orchestra, is a very different story. Written in 1940 for Paul Wittgenstein, this beautifully devised single-movement set of variations presents Britten’s inventiveness at its most elegant (No. 6, ‘Notturno’, is a supple delight), while also finding serious depth in its penultimate Adagio. Osborne and the orchestra do this neglected jewel excellent justice. And there’s vivid recorded sound to match. Malcolm Hayes