Janine Jansen on the Britten Violin Concerto

March 30, 2010, 4:26 PM ·

Let's just say that Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto is not the best-known on the planet. When I polled our die-hard violin lovers here on Violinist.com, 60 percent of our responders had never heard the Britten, and of the 40 percent who had, most had heard a recording. Only a handful  –  5 percent – had heard the piece played live.

Janine Jansen. Photo courtesy artistI must count myself among those who had not heard the Britten, until I came across Dutch violinist Janine Jansen's recording of it with the London Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Paavo Järvi, released last fall. On the recording she pairs the Britten with the much-played, much-loved Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, also conducted by Järvi.

When I spoke with her last month over the phone, she was in Philadelphia to play the Brahms Concerto with Philadelphia Orchestra and Charles Dutoit. I had interviewed Janine about a year ago for Violinist.com, but today I wanted to talk with her specifically about the Britten.

I confessed that I had not heard the Britten until I heard her new recording.

"I think you're not the only one. Unfortunately!" Janine said. She learned it because she was asked to play it with an orchestra in Holland about 10 years ago. "I didn't know it then, either," she said. "I got to know it because I was asked to play it."

She started to practice the piece, to study and play it, and before long, "I was completely in love with this piece," Janine said. "This love has gotten stronger and stronger – I feel so deeply about this piece." Playing it with orchestra, "one experiences the incredible strength of it. You're really giving everything through the whole piece, it's such a tension from beginning to end. And everybody has such an important role to play."

Britten's Violin Concerto is no romp through a sunny field of daisies, but it's also not a wasteland of puzzling sound. It is certainly tonal, maybe like a sad and moody Korngold concerto, with touches of Shostakovich-like elegy. Of course the piece can't be considered derivative of either of those concerti; the Britten was written in 1939; the Korngold in 1945; the Shostakovich in 1947-1948. But they share a certain language of their time – no easy time, at that. It's the kind of idealism that emerges from a broken world, the flower that blooms in a burned-out battlefield.

Though it was one of the first pieces Janine wanted to record when she first started working with Decca six years ago, she did not get her wish right away. "This is not the piece to start with when nobody knows you –  they don't know the violinist, they don't know the piece, it's kind of a finished story!"

But in a way, this delay gave her all the more time to get to know the many facets of the music.

"I tried also to program it wherever I could, because I don't understand why this piece is not played more often," Janine said. "I remember one of the first times I played it, I brought it to Birmingham, to England! And orchestra members would come up to me afterwards and say "Thank you so much for bringing (the Britten), it's been 25 years since we played it!' I thought, my God, I am in the UK, no?'"
"In the last three years, more and more violinists are taking up the piece and also really believing in it. Some wonderful recordings have been made of it," Janine said. Added to the first recording that Janine heard of it, by Ida Haendel, are recent recordings by Maxim Vengerov, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Daniel Hope.

Is it a difficult piece?

"It's quite demanding, definitely," Janine said. "There are some places, like the Scherzo, in the second movement, where it's very fast and there are a lot of double stops, and even double-stop harmonics. So it's quite tricky. But of course one practices a lot. Even then, you never know what will happen!" (laughs)

"But it is written so well, it's really an amazing piece to play, even with its difficulties," Janine said. "One doesn't think about it during the performance because one is so taken by the the music and especially, for me, the end of the piece. The whole coda –this is the most impressive moment. It starts like a prayer, but it ends in a kind of scream, it's incredible. Every time one plays it, one can't move afterwards, physically and emotionally."


March 30, 2010 at 10:48 PM ·

Wonderful CD...Janine Jansen is my new favorite violinist!  

March 31, 2010 at 12:10 AM ·

I had the privilege of performing the Britten Concerto with the Sounds of Stow (Massachusetts) Orchestra on February 28. It is a true masterpiece. Kudos to Janine Jansen for promoting this work. Here are some program notes I put together which might help in understanding this incredible work.


Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto . Opus 15.              


I would like to share some thoughts about Britten’s Violin Concerto. It is a most extraordinary work. It is a requiem for the fallen of the Spanish Civil War, as well as a foreshadowing of World War II—it was finished four weeks into the war in 1939.


The Concerto is based on Spanish themes and motifs and was written for a Spanish violinist, Antonio Brosa. It opens with a brief orchestral introduction followed by the statement of a long, sensual, languid, Mediterranean main theme by the violin. Then comes a starkly contrasting, military “animando,” succeeded by a quasi-cadenza where the violin meditates on the main theme while the tympani echoes the artillery of the military section.  A recapitulation follows, but this time the orchestra has the languid theme and the violin provides guitar-like accompanying commentary.


The first movement ends with a solo reprise and a tranquil, but restless coda, and a series of dreamlike double harmonics. The dream is shattered attaca by a Shostakovich-like acerbic, even violent Scherzo (a decade before Shostakovich’s first violin concerto!!).  We are in the middle of the battle in a fast 3/8…until the arrival of a Carmen-like gypsy trio section that ends in a fantastic solo for two piccolos and tuba worthy of Berlioz. The furies return until the violin emerges into a cadenza of stark contrasts, which in turn segues without pause into the last-movement Passacaglia. 


Britten’s political views were, it seems, very much of the socialist, pacifist,  Left of the 1930s, which makes it all the more remarkable that this movement is modeled on, and profoundly expresses the deep religious spirituality of Bach, Buxtehude, and (my personal suspicion—no evidence) Bruckner.  Britten’s mother, legend has it, had drilled him on the importance of names beginning with “B” in music. There is also some evidence –notably the similarities in the themes of the scherzo middle movement – that Prokofiev’s First Concerto was yet another model for the work.


For a Christian, this is a Lenten concerto. It is about the passion of those who have suffered for others. But there is yet more. After the Passacaglia “proper” of the third movement ends, there is a very long, lightly accompanied coda, which is a Lament based on the Arab and Jewish musical traditions of Moorish Andalusia. 


This Lament has a particular personal resonance. Once upon a time I lived  in North Africa and was introduced to the medieval Arab and Sephardic Jewish vocal traditions, much of which spoke of the disappearance of the (perhaps mythical) world of Arab Grenada and Seville. Britten’s Lament is the descendant of that tradition, and conveys an almost unspeakable sense of loss. And then the work ends, like no other…on a question mark.


Lawrence Franko 

March 31, 2010 at 12:31 AM ·

 Two additions to my earlier comments: I had the same experience as Janine with orchestra members. They came up to me thanking me for introducing them to this piece, saying "This is not just a violin showpiece, it's real music!" Also, the audience response was overwhelming. They were stunned. This piece packs an incredible emotional punch. Out of great tragedy comes great art.

March 31, 2010 at 01:13 AM ·

Thanks for the wonderful program notes, Lawrence! Really vivid description, and the historic details are helpful as well.

March 31, 2010 at 01:20 AM ·

I really love this piece.  Glad to see it get some props, and played.  I've never heard it live, which is such a shame.  Maybe it is an American thing, and it gets more attention in England?  I just listened to the Hope recording last week. 

FYI, Britten also wrote a Violin/Viola concerto. 

Great notes, Lawrence. 



March 31, 2010 at 03:15 AM ·

I first heard it when Daniel Hope's CD came out about a couple of years ago and then I got one played by Vegerov. I love the piece so much that it has been giving them to my violin teachers as the best present I can think of. Almost all the professional violinists I met hadn't had heard this piece before and absolutely loved it once they did. I'm a big fan of Jansen and will defintely get her CD as well.

Thanks for the wonderful interview, Laurie! And thank you Lawrence of the helpful note!

March 31, 2010 at 06:29 AM ·

It is a strange mechanism, the populairity of music. Even the Beethoven- violin concerto was the first years after is was written seldom played. After Korngold the Britten violin concerto is booming, because some big names of today are recording the piece. Hilary Hahn tries to promote the Schoenberg concerto to record it. Perhaps Youtube can lower the barriere of unknown music. There are some life version and earlier I show the solistscore of an old recording.

Silly me, I missed Janine playing the Britten life in Holland and recently I missed another Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma www.simonelamsma.com/ played the Britten also in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam.

March 31, 2010 at 01:37 PM ·

 Oh, I LOVE the Britten VC. Had the privilege of watching Midori perform it three (?) years ago and I found it so compelling, so wrenching. The program notes (much like those expressed by Lawrence - and many thanks, Lawrence, because there's such a somber story behind the VC and you said it well) really colored the experience for me. Sat in my car in the parking lot after the concert and cried.

Lovely interview, Laurie, lovely topic, and congrats to Janine on this release. Sounds just wonderful! (Off I run to enter this week's give-away contest!)

March 31, 2010 at 06:12 PM ·

I have never heard the Britten Requiem.  I had no idea it had any connection with the Spanish Civil War.  I will have to give it a listen.  I had relatives who were involved (and fortunately were not among the fallen).

March 31, 2010 at 07:03 PM ·

 I am so glad you all liked the program notes. The Britten is one of those works where the historical context really is helpful to listeners and performers new to it. Janine mentioned some of the performance and technical challenges for the soloist. Yup. There are quite a few. Seems there are some for the orchestra and the conductor, too. You might be amused by the following comment re the second movement from an e-mail sent by Barbara Jones, the wonderful and enthusiastic conductor of the Stow orchestra, who worked with me (and us) on the piece:

"The image I had before my eyes just before plunging into the Scherzo was the view from the top of the Olympic ski jump track -- once you launch yourself, you just better hang in there and "go for it", fully committed, or you will completely derail!"

BTW, the "Berlioz" tuba and two piccolos trio has an alternative name in these parts , and is known as "the Pink Panther" moment. I believe that Blake Edwards was, indeed, a great fan of classical music. Anyone know if he stole his theme from Britten?

April 1, 2010 at 08:57 AM ·

A great work, unjustly unplayed. I've 2 recordings, by Mark Lubotsky with Britten conducting, and Boris Gutnikov with Leningrad orch. I prefer the last one.

April 5, 2010 at 01:11 PM ·

How good to see this fantastic piece get more attention. When Vengerov recorded it about 8 years ago I thought it would "take off", but it's still far from getting the recognition it deserves. I saw that Ehnes has recently taken it up too. Jansen is an exceptional violinist and artist, and her recording is terrific, though I recall a live performance of hers from a few years earlier that was still more emotionally, viscerally overwhelming.

It's probably a work that especially benefits from a charged concert atmosphere - I'll know more in a few weeks as I'm performing it a few times between April-July, firstly in Coventry Cathedral, which is where Britten composed his War Requiem for, so a special setting. It's an extremely challenging piece, technically, rhythmically, artistically, physically, mentally...I expect to be completely exhausted by the end! Lawrence, I'll bear that quote about the Scherzo in mind.!

Played at the marked tempo some of the Scherzo is on the limit of playability - as far as I remember Zimerman is the only one I've heard who pulls off all the virtuoso devices, though Jansen, Haendel, Vengerov probe further musically. Rather than Korngold I'd say it could be described as inspired by the Berg and looking forward to the Shostakovich. And in my opinion along with the Berg and Prokofiev F minor Sonata, it's the most emotionally powerful work of our 20th century repertoire.


Now back to practise...Nathaniel


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