This disc, well recorded in 1970, pairs together Britten's only two concertos which were written towards the end of the 1930's and before there were any obvious signs of his future focus as a pre-eminent opera composer of his generation.
The piano concerto was later revised to the current version in 1945 with the original Recitative and Aria movement replaced with the Impromptu as played here. That impromptu, really a passacaglia, matched the Passacaglia last movement of the violin concerto.
Both concertos are very well played on this recording which, like most if not all of Britten's recordings, has claim to be considered a defining statement of the composer's intent. Britten was well-known as an excellent conductor of his own work. In the case of the piano concerto he has here not only a renowned virtuoso pianist to work with, but also a close friend. Naturally enough the result is one that would be hard to match let alone improve upon.
Much the same can be said about the quality of the playing in the violin concerto with Mark Lubotsky proving to be both an incisive and sensitive player of considerable technical resource. Of the two concertos, the violin concerto has been the more frequently played and the recording with Lorraine McAslan is well worth searching out although copies are hard to find these days.
I would suggest that this pair of recordings is as close to self-recommending as it is possible to be. It makes a strong case for consideration as the obvious purchase option.
In a lecture that he gave in 1964 Britten said that he did not compose for posterity, and that in any case the outlook for that was doubtful. Well, here we still are 40 years on, so perhaps without tempting fate one may dare bring an outstanding record of his music to a few people’s notice in the hope that they will be around to enjoy it for a while. These two concertos were written in the 1930’s within a short space of each other, the piano concerto being the earlier. Britten himself was soloist in the piano concerto’s first performance, but the work lapsed into comparative oblivion before it was rescued several decades later by no less than Sviatoslav Richter. This is really the Richter of the familiar rave-notices this time. He seems to me to have had several quite distinct personalities as an interpreter and even indeed purely as a player, and this performance displays some of the sides of him that I personally like best. The virtuosity is cool and effortless (it is a particularly awkward solo part) with some wonderful shades of silver in his tone. Britten himself is in charge of the ECO who are on excellent form, and his highly individual orchestral sound is caught with striking vividness and effectiveness –hardly a matter of any surprise of course. The work itself appeals to me enormously, Britten being a composer I particularly like. This performance is going to be a hard act to follow, but I hope it arouses interest in a comparatively neglected work rather than frightening ‘competitors’ off. If you like Britten in general, I would say you are going to enjoy this. If you do not respond to this performance, I guess the work is not for you. I happen to have another performance of the violin concerto with Rodney Friend as soloist and the LPO under Pritchard. It does not seem to be in the current catalogues, but at least it gave me a point of comparison for Lubotsky’s version, which I have no hesitation in describing as distinctly the better of the two. The difference for me is a matter of sheer ‘quality’ – quality of tone, quality of rhythm, quality of intonation. There is a more ‘intense’ feel to this work, particularly in the last movement, another of Britten’s much-loved passacaglias (the Impromptu movement from the piano concerto being yet another). Britten is in charge of the ECO again, with predictably excellent results. The recorded quality may or may not be to your liking. It is very much to mine. The volume level is on the low side, but that is easily remedied by turning up the control. It is extremely clear, though some may find it lacking in warmth. Horses for courses, I say. This is Britten not Brahms, and I like even the violin concerto recorded this way, and the piano concerto even more so. This is a disc I would describe as really outstanding, and now that we have turned over a new year I should like to commend it to a long posterity.
Britten composed two concertos - one each for piano and for violin that are both featured on this seminal CD. The concertos are performed by two close Russian friends of Britten's who both are supremely talented - Sviatoslav Richter on piano and Mark Lubotsky on violin. The accompanying English Chamber Orchestra is conducted by the composer. Both concertos are quite early pieces, written in 1938/39, and both are lyrical works. Britten's unique orchestral textures are already apparent, though his indebtedness to Shostakovich and Prokofiev are evident. These pieces, along with his Bridge Variations and Simple Symphony are ideal places to start getting into Britten compositions.