The venue for last night's contest was Britten's own magical Snape Maltings, and the orchestra was the BPO. Everywhere else in the world BPO stands for Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but Aldeburgh is a parallel musical universe where the BPO is the Britten Pears Orchestra, a crack orchestra of young professionals whose spontaneous music-making puts to shame the autopilot efforts of the big name bands. Yes, they do take risks, as the early horn entry in the attaca between the last two movements of the Mahler showed, but give me ten of those for one of the current autopilot performances by the BBC Symphony. Conductor was man to watch Paul Daniel who conjured up memories of Sir Adrian Boult with a crystal clear stick technique, feet kept firmly on the podium, and violins divided across the stage. The outstanding violin soloist in the fiendishly difficult, and exposed, Britten Concerto was Thomas Bowes whose task was made even more difficult as he took over the part as a last minute substitute for the indisposed Janine Jansen.
Britten was, of course, a great admirer of Mahler. He had received the score of the Ninth Symphony as a present from Peter Pears in 1938, and the Violin Concerto is clearly influenced by that great work, ending in a beautiful coda that struggles ambiguously between the desolation of D minor and the possibility of D major. An outstanding performance faded away last night, and the capacity Snape audience hesitated - had the work really finished, or was there another movement to follow to resolve the ambiguity? There were no such questions in the second half, the barnstorming Rondo Finale of the Mahler accelerated to the final bars leaving the audience in no doubt that this was the triumphant conclusion. The audiences responded with an ovation, and it was clear that Mahler had won with a knockout in the finale.
The status of these contrasting masterpieces from two of the 20th century's greatest composers mirrors the reaction of last night's audience. There are few recordings of the Britten in the catalogue (the finest of which remains the composer's own), and it is rarely heard in the concert hall. Searching Mahler 5 on Amazon returns 320 hits, and the work is a warhorse of the auto-pilot orchestras with the peripatetic Minnesota Orchestra riding it into town this summer for a BBC Prom. Why the difference in popularity?
Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice was the PR dream come true for the Mahler. I still cannot hear the Adagietto without seeing a heavily made-up Dirk Bogarde, and to understand the film's inspiration just compare the photo here of Bogarde as Gustav von Ascenbach with the header image of Mahler. And talking of von Aschenbach the opening work of the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival is a new production of Britten's opera Death in Venice directed by Yoshi Oida with the Britten Pears Orchestra conducted by last night's conductor Paul Daniel. While the Mahler symphony was undoubtedly boosted by Visconti's dramatisation of Thomas Mann's novella, the Britten Violin Concerto is unpopular with today's autopilot soloists who find it difficult to learn and in little demand from the equally as autopilot concert planners.
But is there an additional explanation for the differing popularity of the two works in the form of their finales? Granted there are many examples of frequently played works with equivocal endings ranging from Maher's Ninth Symphony to the Rite of Spring and Gottedamerung. But these are outnumbered many times over by the popular works with rousing and uplifting conclusions, including Mahler's own First Symphony (have you ever heard a performance that didn't get a standing ovation?), Beethoven's Ninth and numerous other examples. So is there a lesson here for contemporary composers? - please your publisher and get more performances by writing a rousing finale.
* A timely reminder that December 4th 2006 is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Benjamin Britten. The composer was a friend of admirer of Shostakovich, and it is an irony that this important musical anniversary looks likely to be overshadowed on the BBC and elsewhere by the current Shostakovich saturation. Britten was a great composer, conductor and pianist, a musical visionary, pacifist and humanitarian whose legacy not only survives, but grows with the work of the Britten Pears Foundation which embraces young performers and composers. Many of Britten's admirers, including me, will be attending a concert at Snape on December 2nd by the Britten Sinfonia and Britten Pears Chamber Choir. This will include Britten's 1948 cantata St Nicholas and Arvo Pärt's Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten. We are also fortunate to be seeing the acclaimed new Glyndebourne Touring production of the Turn of the Screw here in East Anglia in November.
* I mentioned the impact of the film Death in Venice on the popularity of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. We should also not forget that films were important in popularising Britten's music. He composed scores for GPO Film Unit productions including Night Mail and Coal Face in conjunction with WH Auden (pictured together left). And of course Britten's best known work, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), was composed to accompany Instruments of the Orchestra, an educational film produced by the British government, which was narrated and conducted by Malcolm Sargent.
Britten's Violin Concerto was first performed in 1940 with John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic, now follow this link for more on new music in New York at that time.
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