Steinway Owners’ Magazine: Hidden Britten

As seen in the Issue One 2013 edition of the Steinway Owners' Magazine.

As the world marks the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, some well deserved light will fall on his piano works. Though largely overlooked beside his orchestral and operatic compositions, there are some gems among this relatively tiny aspect of his output, as Jessica Duchen reveals

Benjamin Britten’s prowess as a pianist has long been overshadowed by his repute as a composer. He is in good company, of course. Over the centuries, many of the finest composers have been equally adept at the keyboard, among them Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Where Britten differs, though, is that despite his outstanding playing, he wrote remarkably little for the instrument. It’s a typically Brittenesque paradox, perhaps; one that reflects his own inner conflicts; yet it also tells us much about his taste for discovering different musical colors.

Britten’s piano output is tiny: just a handful of solo works composed between 1923 and 1940, two pieces for two pianos, one early Piano Concerto, Diversions, for piano left hand and orchestra, the brief but stirring ‘fanfare’ Young Apollo for piano and orchestra and the short solo Night Piece, commissioned by the first Leeds International Piano Competition in 1963. Otherwise, he usually relegates the instrument, when he uses it at all, to a strangely self-effacing role.

Britten himself was a natural pianist — even if he didn’t always think so. Faced with an unsympathetic teacher at Gresham, the boarding school he attended, he was told that his hopes of becoming a musician were unfounded; fortunately, he took no notice, and was happy to hurry off to the great Harold Samuel for occasional lessons instead. Ultimately the school praised his pianistic gifts, but the Royal College of Music, where his piano teacher was Arthur Benjamin, did not. The institution failed to encourage him towards a pianistic career, beyond wondering how he was going to earn a living. “Lor’, I’m bad at the piano,” the student reflected.

His sense of frustration over his own playing persisted into his early professional life as a jobbing musician, composing scores for film and radio broadcasts. Perhaps he was being too severe on himself. When he met his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears, in 1937 and began to accompany him, the singer was struck by “an extraordinary connection between his brain and his heart and the tips of his fingers. You could watch Ben holding his hands over the piano preparatory to playing a slow movement, a soft, soft chord, and you could see his fingers alert, alive, really sometimes even quivering with the intensity of what was going to occur.”

Exceptional sensitivity shines out of Britten’s recordings as accompanist to Pears, especially in the music of Schubert. “He used to accompany songs by Schubert,” wrote Imogen Holst, “with such intimate concern that the music sounded as if it were his own.”

Perhaps the key to Britten’s attitude towards the piano was its role as foil to the human voice. In recordings of his playing you can hear the vocal quality of his phrasing, a rounded, expressive touch and an unerring instinct for the right balance of interaction with his musical collaborators; this can be no coincidence. After he met Pears, the instrument seems to have settled into its natural place in his mind and his creativity.

Barry Douglas, one of all too few pianists who have championed Britten’s Piano Concerto, regards him as “a born pianist, as well as a born composer, conductor, collaborator and educator”. Douglas’ teacher, the late Maria Curcio, knew Britten and Pears well and, he recounts, used to stay often at their house in Aldeburgh. “She told me that she was lucky enough to see the interactions between Britten and people like Sviatoslav Richter, as well as watching Britten and Pears rehearsing,” he says, “and she thought he had a completely natural gift for the piano. He was able to have a musical thought and it happened perfectly every time at the instrument — he didn’t have to work at it. His playing sounds beautiful, natural, right, wholesome and sincere. There’s not a drop of egotism in it. It’s all about the music — and that’s rare.”

That sincerity would have been appreciated by many of his collaborators, not least Sir Clifford Curzon, with whom Britten sometimes gave performances of his (and others’) works for two pianos. But nerves, unfortunately, are often the downside of sensitivity. Though reasonably confident as a performer at first, Britten seems to have suffered appallingly from nerves later on; something that the harpsichordist and conductor George Malcolm judged might have been the result of him being “an instinctive rather than a scientific pianist”.

It is interesting that later, especially at the Aldeburgh Festival, Britten would appear at the piano as chamber musician or as soloist in a Mozart piano concerto, but rarely alone; his first preference was to join forces with other musicians. And it was in these situations he met his greatest triumphs as a performer — for instance, with the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich at Aldeburgh in the 1960s.

The Piano Concerto, the most substantial and prominent of his works for the instrument, dates from 1938, when Britten was all of 25, and was finished just in time for its first rehearsal at the Proms. The composer was himself the soloist (“The piano part wasn’t as impossible to play as I feared,” he told his publisher). It is much of its era, at times echoing the insouciant brilliance of Ravel, Poulenc or Prokofiev. It opens with a dizzying toccata and proceeds through a waltz, an intermezzo — a late addition in 1945, replacing a recitative and aria — and, to close, a march that sometimes seems a cousin to Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. Britten described the piece as “simple and direct in form” and he hoped that it would be popular as “a bravura Concerto with orchestral accompaniment”.

Perhaps he was underselling his own gifts. Some of Britten’s friends felt that he had concentrated on brilliance at the expense of originality. And even today the work is not performed nearly as much as it deserves. The intermezzo — a passacaglia — is its most recognizably Brittenesque movement: here, the acidic harmonies and shadowy coloration are clearly from the same world as Peter Grimes, with which this section is contemporaneous.

“The whole piece is halfway between a concerto and a divertissement of four character movements,” suggests the Scottish pianist Steven Osborne, who has performed and recorded the work and will play it a number of times in a variety of countries during this year’s Britten centenary celebrations. “In particular, the nature of the last movement is very difficult to define — I had to work very hard to get a really convincing character into it.”

Reflecting on why the concerto is not programmed more frequently, Douglas suggests, “It has all the elements necessary for a popular piece, but maybe it needs more of the bigger themes, something into which newcomers can get their teeth. Maybe it’s too ironical; because he’s so over-the-top bombastic, especially at the end, somehow people are wondering if this is the real Britten. He’s poking fun all the time: you might wonder if we can take it seriously.” But he adds that the somberness of the passacaglia “underpins the work”, a valuable counterbalance to the irony.

“It’s really fun to play and it’s obviously fun for the audience. People respond very well to it,” says Osborne. “In terms of writing for the piano, though, I’m guessing that perhaps Britten was a little inhibited by his own facility. You can enjoy the physical aspects of the virtuosity, but perhaps it almost made it difficult for him to think musically. I think maybe his imagination was freer when he wasn’t writing for an instrument with which he had such a strong personal connection.

“He didn’t write much dark music for piano, which is interesting: I wonder if there’s something about the piano for him that lay in a particular emotional realm, relatively light and brilliant.”

Britten followed the Concerto with Young Apollo, a ‘fanfare’ for piano and orchestra commissioned by CBC and first performed in Toronto, not long after he and Pears headed to North America in 1938. During their American years he also wrote Scottish Ballad for two pianos and orchestra, a medley of traditional tunes and, in 1940, Diversions, for piano left hand and orchestra. This latter work was for Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who, having lost his right arm in World War I, also commissioned left hand works from such luminaries as Prokofiev, Ravel, Strauss, Hindemith and Korngold. “Not deep,” Britten said of the work, “but quite pretty.”

But why so little solo piano music, even though his friend Richter would have loved him to write some more? The explanation could derive from Britten’s own complex relationship with the instrument as a player; or it could be the fact that, despite his facility, he simply preferred other timbres. Interviewed in 1962, he explained, “I like the piano very much as a background instrument, but I don’t feel inclined to treat it as a melodic instrument. I find that it’s limited in color. I don’t really like the sound of a modern piano.”

Still, Benjamin Grosvenor, who performed the Britten Concerto at the Proms in 2011 when he was just 19 and has also played it this year at the Barbican, casts intriguing perspective on Britten’s canny use of pianistic color. “He understood the piano and what could be achieved with it — e.g., in the first movement cadenza,” he says, “but also, importantly, how it would sound in context. The full effect of the keyboard writing is only realized when you hear it with the orchestra, and hear the textures that result.”

One last image of Britten at the piano lingers. At the end of World War II he accompanied Yehudi Menuhin on a visit to Bergen-Belsen after the concentration camp’s liberation. The cellist Anita Lasker, a survivor of its horrors, was present at the performance, though did not know at the time who the pianist was. “Somehow one never noticed that there was any accompanying going on at all,” she wrote, “and yet I had to stare at this man like one transfixed as he sat seemingly suspended between chair and keyboard, playing so beautifully.”

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