CD Review


© Siebe Riedstra, April 2009

Also published by MusicWeb International



Britten: Double Concerto for violin and viola - Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge Op 10 - Les Illuminations Op 18.

Pieter Schoeman (violin), Alexander Zemtsov (viola), Sally Matthews (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.

LPO Live 0037 • 71' •

Like every self-respecting orchestra nowadays, the London Philharmonic have their own label, featuring live recordings both recent and of historical importance. This disc sports recordings from concerts given with their newly appointed music director Vladimir Jurowski - since 2007 - at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elisabeth Hall and Royal Festival Hall in 2006 (Double Concerto, Queen Elizabeth) and 2008. 

The ravishing ending of the Double Concerto warrants the acquisition of this disc all by itself. The way viola player Alexander Zemtsov echoes his colleague Pieter Schoeman - they both occupy first chairs in the orchestra - in the evocative single high notes that resonate long after they have sounded, will make you want to play this disc all over again. Benjamin Britten was a child prodigy - if there ever was one - and even in his teens he was capable of writing music of genius and then discarding it just like that. This is what happened to the double concerto for violin and viola of 1931, finished in 'short score', but abandoned and never looked at again. It was Colin Matthews who in 1997 realised the orchestral score from Britten's very detailed markings, and the concerto was premiered in Aldeburgh that year. Written before Britten's official opus 1, it already demonstrates his mature style.  

Six years later Boyd Neel, who had conducted Britten's only feature film score, Love from a stranger, asked Britten to compose a piece for his string orchestra to perform at the Salzburg Festival. Britten took a theme from his teacher Frank Bridge - Idyll no.2 for string quartet - and finished a 25-minute variation cycle in just over a month. It became his first popular classic and has remained so ever since. As a live recording, this performance has the merit of spontaneous music making, and as such is big boned, rather than refined. In post-production the slightly overlong pauses between variations, obviously necessary in performance, could have been taken out, but that is of course a matter of choice.

Although the song cycle Les Illuminations was originally written for Britten's life companion Peter Pears, it has become the domain of every self-respecting soprano. Sally Matthews is technically and vocally on top of things, but in doing so forgets about the words.

This disc brings together the talents of two important orchestra members, leader Pieter Schoeman and principal viola Alexander Zemtsov. Despite his Dutch-sounding name Schoeman is from South-Africa, and Russian-born Zemtsov studied in the Netherlands. In their hands, and with the help of Vladimir Jurowski and their colleagues, Britten's Double Concerto has become a masterpiece.