Thursday 19 December 2013

With three World Premiere Recordings, all Britten enthusiasts and lovers of British music will want this finely played new release from Naxos

Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) centenary year has brought forth many fine new recordings but a new release from Naxos  gives us no less than three premiere recordings. It must be said straightaway that all of the premiered works are less than five minutes long and date, as do most of the works on the disc, from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

The new release is entitled Reflections, a title drawn from two of the works on the works included, Relections, for Viola and Piano (1930) and Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland for Viola and Piano, Op.48 (1950). The performers here are Matthew Jones (violin/viola) and Annabel Thwaite (piano)


It is Britten’s Suite for Violin and Piano, Op.6 from1934/35 that opens this disc with an Introduction: Andante maestoso where strident phrases from the violin, before the piano joins, in this opening statement, before leading to the March: Allegro alla Marcia, a whimsical little motif for violin and piano, interrupted by sudden dissonant chords on the violin and staccato piano chords. The Moto perpetuo: Allegro molto e con fuoco has an insistent violin motif over a dancing piano motif which receives some terrific playing from Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite in this often astringent section. Annabel Thwaite picks out a melody of the Lullaby: Lento tranquillo as Matthew Jones’ violin gently appears with the melody proper, an exquisite little theme, exquisitely played. The piano has the theme halfway through against held violin chords. A lively bouncing waltz theme, Waltz: Alla valse – Vivace e rubato, concludes with the theme varying throughout often becoming quite wild.

Reflection, for Viola and Piano (1930) marked, Andante ma con moto, has a quiet, moody opening for the piano before the viola’s dark tones enter in this work, originally merely titled Piece for Viola and Piano. Its apt title, Reflection, was only given to it when published. It rises to a passionate, anguished central section before quietening to a hushed coda. This is an extremely fine early work.

Marked Andante – rubato e pigro, Reveille: Concert Study for Violin and Piano (1937) opens quietly on the piano before the violin joins weaving an often drooping melody over the carefully insistent piano accompaniment. Slowly the violinist develops the strange melodic line with odd violinistic effects, terrifically played by Matthew Jones. The violin suddenly leaps up in a frantic rush to end the piece.

With Elegy, for unaccompanied Viola (1930) Matthew Jones produces some fine sounds as the piano develops from its quiet Poco lento opening and becomes more passionate. There are also some exquisitely poetic moments in this fine work, so brilliantly played by Matthew Jones.

The first of the premiere recordings comes with Two Pieces for Violin and Piano written in 1931 when the composer was 18 years of age. The Moon: Andante comodo has a lovely flowing melody for violin and piano which slowly unfolds, quite melancholy and reflective. Going Down Hill on a Bicycle (A Boy’s Song): Allegro giocoso is a riotously inventive piece that receives some terrific playing from this duo.

Another premiere recording is the Etude, for Solo Viola and dates from 1929, when Britten was just fifteen years of age. Marked Allegro e molto vivace it provides quite a work out for the violinist. Though it is often quite an academic sounding piece it, nevertheless, is fascinating to hear and brilliantly played by Matthew Jones.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was Britten’s teacher and for many years seemed to be doomed to be remembered for nothing else. He was a very fine composer whose works have received a greater exposure in recent decades, mainly from recordings.  Probably Bridge’s best known orchestral work is There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook which is performed here in Britten’s effective arrangement for viola and piano made in 1932, the viola having just the melancholic quality for this piece, a version I will return to, especially as so finely played here.

Valse in B minor, for Violin and Piano (1925) is the third of the premiere recordings on this disc and was sketched out when Britten was only 10 years old and arranged for violin and piano two years later. It brings a certain childlike charm, with some of the writing sounding as though it was somewhat falteringly worked out. These players do not dress it up but allow it to speak for itself, on its own terms.

Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland for Viola and Piano, Op.48 (1950) takes us to the other end of Britten’s compositional life. He originally wrote Lachrymae, for viola and piano in 1950 but towards the end of his life he arranged it for viola and small string orchestra as Op. 48a. It is subtitled ‘Reflections on a song of Dowland, and, indeed, the earlier composer remains pretty well veiled until toward the end of the work. There is some beautifully sensitive playing here as Britten weaves around Dowland’s theme as well as some impressively accomplished playing from Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite. It is a lovely moment when Dowland’s theme finally is revealed towards the end.

All Britten enthusiasts and lovers of British music will want this finely played new disc. The recording, made at Wyastone Hall, Monmouthshire, is very detailed and there are excellent booklet notes from Matthew Jones.

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