Sunday, 19 October 2008

Benjamin Britten: an early review in the New York Times

The 1934 International Society for Contemporary Music was at the time probably most famous for the ‘Psalm for soprano and orchestra’ by Igor Markevitch and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite with its “delicate caressing lyric quality” – which was a surprise to an audience that probably expected more dissonance and a sprinkling of quartertones. The latter work is justly famous and the former appears to have disappeared into virtual oblivion – although Marco Polo does have a release of that work in its catalogue.

From the perspective of 2008, the work that endured was the Ravel Piano Concerto for left hand. Arthur Honegger’s Symphonic Movement No.3 and Bartok’s Rhapsody for violin and orchestra is still in the repertoire.

From the British point of view there was only one work. This was by the young, nineteen year old Benjain Britten who was represented by his Phantasy for oboe, violin, viola and ‘cello.
The New York Times reviewer writing from Florence on April 7 1934 was not impressed. Writing about the second chamber music programme he says:-

“With the partial exception of the Sinfonietta for strings by the twenty-six year-old Swede Lars Erik Larsson, all of the second chamber program – Fantasy (sic) for oboe, violin, viola and ‘cello by Benjamin Britten (England, 1913): Trio by Heinrich Neugeboren (Hungary); Cantata on Old German Lieder for flute, oboe d’amore, lute, viola d’amore, viola de gamba, ‘cello and drum by Richard Sturzenegger (Zurich, 1905); Quartettino by Leopold Spinner (Austria); Violin Sonata by Jaroslav Jenek (Prague, 1906) and Five Songs for baritone and piano by Hans Erich Apostel (Vienna, 1901) – appeared styleless concoctions of old and new, hopelessly mediocre and tiresome, and in the case of the Jezek Sonata, downright ugly and exasperating in its interminable vacuity.” [New York Times 24 April 1934]

Our opinion of the Phantasy may be more nuanced some seventy four years later!

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