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.
I 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."
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