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Britten's admirers will want the recording because of this rarely heard Overture and the almost equally neglected Suite of Catalan Dances. But even if they have Vengerov's beautifully played version of the Concerto, they'll want McAslan's as well. Her merger of anguish with steely force is probably closer to the composer's original intention than Vengerov's softer, warmer approach. The Fascist turmoil in Spain was much on Britten's mind when he wrote the piece, and that's reflected in the flamenco rhythm of its timpani opening. The violin later takes up the same rhythm in this magical moment [listen -- track 2, 5:52-7:21].

Britten's wonderful concerto is relatively neglected by the major violinists, perhaps because of its unique form. Movements are slow, fast, slow rather than the usual, more audience pleasing opposite. I is a quasi-sonata form, without a repetition of the second theme. The middle is the most reminiscent of other concertos; Prokofiev's first comes to mind. III is a surprising passacaglia. The orchestra builds slowly to a climax and then the violin begins a lengthy, cathartic descent to a quiet and poignant conclusion [listen -- track 4, 8:33-10:01].

Britten's own version with the same orchestra is also worth having. Violinist Lubotsky, presumably with the composer's blessing, takes a third course -- less aggressive than McAslan, more despairing than Vengerov. The Decca sound remains quite acceptable, and you also get Richter's fine performance of the Piano Concerto.

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Copyright © 4 January 2006 Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA


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