Recording of May 2024: Britten: Violin Concerto, Chamber Works

Benjamin Britten: Violin Concerto, Chamber Works
Isabelle Faust, violin; Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Jakub Hrůša, cond.; Boris Faust, viola; Alexander Melnikov, piano
Harmonia Mundi HMM902668 (CD, reviewed as 24/96). 2024. Sebastian Braun, Julian Schwenker, prods.; Schwenker, Klemens Kamp, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

I sat mesmerized when I first encountered a recording of Benjamin Britten's early Violin Concerto from 1939 (revised in 1958) at an audio show exhibit sponsored by High End by Oz. Ever since I heard those portions of Linus Roth's superbly recorded SACD for Channel Classics, I've longed for a version that would move beyond its strange harmonies and dissonances to reveal all facets of this communicative yet enigmatic work. Isabelle Faust rarely shies away from music conducive to deep thought and feeling; recently she has recorded works by Berg, Schoenberg, Bartók, and Stravinsky. Her hair-raising, emotionally wrought rendition of the Britten concerto, with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for Harmonia Mundi, reveals depths and nuances that competing versions only hint at.

Britten was 25 when, in late 1938, he began composing the concerto for Spanish-born English violinist Antonio Brosa. By the time Britten completed the orchestration, in 1939, the lifelong pacifist had fled war-torn Europe for the United States with his life partner, tenor Peter Pears.

In this live recording, Faust's bright-toned violin is given front-and-center precedence. Lines pulsate with feeling. Her high-flying excursions that include playing on the bridge are gorgeous. The musicianship is so ravishing that, after multiple listens, I still sit in astonishment at Faust's achievement.

After a seductive and dancelike Spanish lilt surfaces in the first movement, an ominous darkness in the orchestra impinges on the violin's rhapsodic lyricism. The second movement begins energetically, even optimistically, before Faust's violin begins to dance and whirl frantically and fiendishly. Vibrato all but ceases as orchestral storm clouds gather. There's a marvelous, unforgettable short section where the violin seems to chirp at the top of its range while, many octaves below, a tuba lays a dark foundation. During the violin's solo cadenza, the magnificent Faust growls with anger in her Strad's low register and sears at the top. At times, her laments and wails seem to echo the suffering of countless parents embracing the bodies of dead children and other loved ones. The music is heart-rending.

As tension builds to the breaking point, the orchestra re-enters, filled with grief. The music almost grinds to a halt, and everything seems in danger of crashing down. As the first movement's Spanish theme reasserts itself with adamance, as if singing valiantly amidst forces stronger than itself, brief hints of hope and healing emerge. On my third listen, thoughts of Spain's Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting Franco's fascism flooded my mind.

After a big orchestral buildup to a false climax, Faust's instrument cries out repeatedly with the eloquence of a human voice. In her hands, the intensity of the concerto's final five minutes is breathtaking. Britten's conclusion threatens to go on a bit too long, but Faust finds its poetic center and makes its plea her own. What a performance!

Shortly before Harmonia Mundi released Faust and Hrůša's recording, the UK's Gramophone magazine awarded an Editor's Choice to a considerably mellower recording of the Violin Concerto, on Orfeo, by Baiba Skride and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop. Skride's playing—far less aggressive, intense, and bright—is most notable when she slows and tapers her slenderer sound to a mere thread. The engineering gives Alsop's orchestra far more prominence—the balance is more authentic—and there is considerably more emphasis on lower midrange weight and hall ambience. If you're drawn to Skride and Alsop's interpretation and/or the recording's sonic perspective, you may likely give precedence to the music's personal implications over its war-torn relevance. Both reactions are, of course, valid. For me, Faust's brilliance, stamina, and conviction speak strongest.

The Faust recording's three companion chamber works all date from early in Britten's career, including Two Pieces for violin, viola, and piano completed shortly after his 16th birthday and first recorded only a decade ago by Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite on Naxos. Here, Faust joins her frequent, sympatico recital partner, the equally brilliant Alexander Melnikov, and Boris, her violist brother. It's a most attractive composition, but you'll search hard to discover the emphasis on decadence and decay that informs a lot of Britten's mature work, especially the works composed for Pears. (The two pieces, after all, are called "The Moon" and "Going Downhill on a Bicycle.")

The other two chamber works are marginally more substantial. Britten called Reveille a "concert study"; also written for Brosa and said to be about the violinist's difficulty with early mornings, it moves from plaintive whining to humor. The Suite for Violin and Piano has lovely moments, but it's the Violin Concerto, which points to the greatness of Britten's most searing operas and most transgressive and defiant settings of poetry by Auden, Donne, Michelangelo, and others, that will inspire you to play this recording over and over again. Urgently recommended.—Jason Victor Serinus

MontyM's picture

Hi Jason,

Thank you for the recommendation.

- Monty

JohnnyThunder2.0's picture

I love all of IF's concerto recordings and can't wait to hear this. Wasn't her recording of the Berg concerto a revelation?

Roland Schlosser's picture

Hi Jason, thanks for this enthusiastic hint. Isabelle's violin is singing and crying in the sky. She is a musician of the highest. I knew this concert before with Mark Lubotsky playing the violin and Britten himself conducting. Very good recording as well, kind of reference, but this one surpasses it with intensity and clarity. The recording technique is excellent, gives a first row experience, near the soloist. Perfect example for our hobby: the illusion being with the musicians in the hall. Great.