Podcast Classics

Britten: Violin Concerto

Ning Feng (violin), Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. Recorded by Radio New Zealand Concert, 16 October 2014, at the Auckland Town Hall.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Violin Concerto
I. Moderato con moto
II. Vivace
III. Passacaglia: Andante lento

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Rather serious I’m afraid,” said Britten, when asked about the character of this work. It was a classic bout of English understatement. One has to remember that this profoundly pacifist composer was writing in 1939, at a time when the Spanish Civil War was still brutally fresh in the mind and World War II was only some four weeks old. Britten’s painful anxieties over the dark developments of the time are transferred into his music, and this Violin Concerto bears many scars.

At the opening, a five-note motto from the timpani turns itself into an accompaniment figure while the violin sings the warmly lyrical main theme over the top. Disruptive elements begin to appear and soon the violin is pounding out angry double-stops, diabolic runs, with screeching high notes set against the military combination of trumpets and drums. These two elements provide the musical contrast during the movement: lyrical song against military aggression.

Next, a brilliant but often grotesque scherzo explodes onto the stage, exacting ruthless virtuosity from the soloist and creating strange extremes from the orchestra (the trio section has a Berlioz-like ensemble for two piccolos and low tuba, with shivering strings in the background). About six minutes in, just past the mid-point of the movement, a shattering climax propels the violin into the spotlight, for a long and fascinating cadenza that recalls material from the opening, particularly the drummotto figure.

Without a formal break, the final movement treads in warily, under the violinist’s final, high-altitude cadenza notes, and we find ourselves in a church-like setting with the trombones intoning the first entry of a repeating passacaglia section, one of Britten’s favourite orchestral vehicles. At the end, the violin trembles between F and F-sharp (G-flat), so we never know whether the optimism/ pessimism tension between major/minor form of the key of D has won the day. For Britten and his generation, an ending like this seemed like a frightening question mark.

Ning Feng, Violin

Ning Feng

Ning Feng

Photo: APO

Born in Chengdu, China, Ning Feng studied at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he was the first student ever to be awarded 100 percent for his final recital. The recipient of prizes at the Hanover International, Queen Elisabeth and Yehudi Menuhin International violin competitions, Ning Feng was First Prize winner of the 2005 Michael Hill International Violin Competition (New Zealand).

Now based in Berlin and performing worldwide, Ning Feng is an artist of great lyricism and emotional transparency, displaying tremendous bravura and technical accomplishment.

In recent seasons he has performed with orchestras such as the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer, the Russian State Symphony with Vladimir Jurowski and Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg with Muhai Tang. Ning Feng is a member of the Dragon Quartet, founded in 2012. Ning Feng records for Channel Classics.

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

Photo: APO

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra is Auckland’s leading performing arts organisation, and the city’s resident full-time professional symphony orchestra. Renowned for its innovation, passion and versatility, the APO collaborates with some of New Zealand’s most inventive artists.

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Producer: Tim Dodd
Engineer: Larry Elliot

Programme notes: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra archive