Music on Radio
Friday 20 June 1997
This year's Aldeburgh Festival, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has now added another item to the list of posthumous revelations of Britten's youthful genius, a work of such extraordinary character and technical command that one wonders why the composer was so reluctant to allow publication. It has been suggested that his Concerto for Violin and Viola was left unorchestrated and unperformed because of the 19-year-old Britten's experience of a dreadful student performance of the roughly contemporary Sinfonietta. But he allowed that work to become his official opus 1, and the premiere of the Double Concerto, broadcast live from the festival by BBC Radio 3 on Sunday afternoon, revealed a precision and daring that must have reassured those who doubt the wisdom of dredging up the composer's forgotten early pieces.
The orchestration of Britten's short score was splendidly achieved by Colin Matthews, and the performance by Katherine Hunka, Philip Dukes and the Britten-Pears Orchestra under Kent Nagano left no doubt that this concerto deserves to become part of the repertory. Later that afternoon in a Radio 3 feature Fifty Years of the Aldeburgh Festival, which included touching anecdotes and absorbing information about the growth of the festival (what an organiser as well as musician Britten was), the point was made that it was never intended as a Bayreuth, and that Britten premieres were fewer than one might have imagined. Nevertheless, works of deepest importance were unveiled there - one's mind boggles at the thought of A Midsummer Night's Dream appearing for the first time on the minute Jubilee Hall stage - and the Concerto for Violin and Viola is fully worthy of that tradition.
The music of a composer of even earlier maturity than Britten, Korngold, is currently undergoing something of a revival: he was Radio 3's Composer of the Week recently, and some of the wunderkind's astonishing orchestral music was given in a follow up concert from Manchester by Matthias Bamert and the BBC Philharmonic. It was a fascinating programme, and it was distinguished by an interval talk which intriguingly compared Korngold's experience of Hollywood with that of Schoenberg. Korngold's film success was phenomenal, of course, as was Schoenberg's intractability when MGM's Irving Thalberg tried to woo him into writing music for The Good Earth. On hearing the description of one sequence, Schoenberg's "Why do you need music with all that going on?" hammered the last nail into the coffin. He never scored a Hollywood movie. But what perhaps is less known is that he later sketched ideas for the movie, apparently for his own satisfaction, including pentatonic motifs for the Chinese peasant scenes, an attempt, perhaps, but a private one, to come off his high horse.
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