Isabelle Faust Plays Benjamin Britten (very well)

Another title for this release could have been “Isabelle Faust Plays Britten.” And she does so exceedingly well. The showpiece is, of course, the violin concerto. But the shorter chamber works are more than just filler. They demonstrate both the skill of the young Benjamin Britten and the artistry of Faust.

Britten composed three of the four works on this album for Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa. The Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 6 was the first. Britten completed it in 1936. Britten accompanied Brosa at its premiere. 

The young composer had recently heard Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Berg was the most lyrical of the early twelve-tone proponents. There’s some of that aesthetic in this suite. Britten employs the wide leaps and half-step turns of the Schoenberg School. But always in service to the melody. 

Reveille was composed a year after the suite. Britten dedicated the piece to Brosa, who was not an early riser. The work depicts a violinist slowly rousing. As the work progresses, the violist gathers energy leading to a string-busting finale.

The Violin Concerto was written for — and premiered by Brosa in 1940. This is the product of a mature Britten. His writing is effective and assured. And it’s a real showpiece for the soloist. The recording comes from live performances on October 28-29, 2021. The audience is exceptionally quiet — I had no audio clues that this was live. But the performances show it. Live performances have an energy that studio recordings generally lack.

Isabelle Faust is on top of this work. Her playing is almost perfect, and her performance sweeps the listener along. Especially impressive is her intonation. Harmonics and notes at the extreme end of the register don’t phase her. They’re as rock-solid as her broad strokes on the open G string. Faust holds her own with the orchestra. And she’s also an excellent chamber player. 

In the Suite and Reveille there’s chemistry between Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov. The two musicians convey Reveille’s gentle humor. Their performances, make it a fun little diversion. 

Also included is a world recording premiere of Two Pieces for Violin, Viola, and Piano. Britten wrote the piece when he was sixteen. It was 1929 and the influence of atonality is quite evident. Nevertheless, there’s something here that rises the quality above that of juvenilia. Britten wasn’t just imitating a style — he was using it to say something. So while this isn’t Britten’s best composition, it’s still one worth listening to. 

Benjamin Britten: Violin Concerto, Op. 15
Reveille; Suite for violin and piano, Op. 6
Two Pieces for violin, viola, and piano
Isabelle Faust, violin
Symphonieorchestra des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Jakub Hrusa, conductor
Boris Faust, viola; Alexander Meinikov, piano
Harmonia Mundi 902668

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