#Classical365: 11 – Britten Double Concerto for Violin and Viola

I’ve plumped for Britten’s Double Concerto today. I had listened to what I thought was Haydn’s first string quartet earlier on today and had fully intended to write about that. But after a delayed journey to Birmingham, getting here later than planned, losing one of my earbuds (it makes listening a rather bizarre experience) and needing to get things sorted for the day so I can get a good nights sleep, listening to something familiar was a pragmatic solution.

I’m a Britten fan, so this is in a sense a pretty easy choice. Two instrumentalists playing the solo part on stage with an orchestra seemed like a typically unorthodox proposition when I first heard of the work back in 1997. The Britten-Pears Orchestra – the band I was Orchestral Manager for – were billed to premiere the work conducted by Kent Nagano at the opening of the 50th festival. Things had been predictably last minute – there were considerable arrangements to make, not least accommodating Nagano’s rather odd transport arrangements. The orchestral parts were delivered a week before rehearsals began in Acton, West London. There were no recordings to familiarise ourselves with the work. The orchestra was going in ‘blind’ as it were.

By 1997 I had been working at Britten-Pears for two years. By that time, I’d heard a considerable amount of Britten’s music in and around the town which had inspired him. His tonal language contributed to a soundtrack to my own experiences in Aldeburgh which even now, nearly twenty years on, transports me back there in an instant whenever I hear any of his music.

His Double Concerto – an early work of his which had remained undiscovered until after his death – was incomplete. Composer Colin Matthews who had worked with Britten towards the end of his life and later became a council member for the Aldeburgh Foundation, completed the work for performance . The idea of taking the time and trouble to complete someone else’s work seemed an almost disrespectful thing to do and not particularly authentic. The pedant in me seeks absolute truth. Who’s work would this be? Britten’s or Matthews’?

Such concerns fell away as soon as the orchestra started to play. Where Britten ended and Matthews started was irrelevant as soon as I heard the music. The orchestra and its support staff had travelled across London to Bell Percussion in Acton – nothing like Aldeburgh as a destination at all. And yet, within seconds the music transported us back there. Unmistakable Britten in everything played and heard.

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