'I only encountered the Britten Violin Concerto for the first time in 2003, when I heard Maxim Vengerov and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich on the radio. I was mesmerised. Britten’s music was rather a late discovery for me, but it immediately spoke to me in an irresistible language that I had never heard before. I remember the feeling of despair and drama that came across – a romantic violin concerto in 20th-century language.'
'As soon as I heard the Britten Violin Concerto, I wanted to play it, to live it, but it would take me nearly a decade before I was actually able to include it in my repertoire. For me, it’s right up there with Shostakovich’s violin concertos, especially the first, which were always more popular than the Britten. However, promoters tend to think that Britten is too heavy and not a safe bet for an audience. At the beginning of my career, I was often advised to play Shostakovich instead – that it would be more audience friendly. That only made me more determined. I have a mission with this piece. The audience is always fascinated: after a concert people say, ‘What a piece. I had no idea about it – it’s a masterpiece!’ That is the best reaction you can have.
The timpani and cymbals open the piece and there’s an air of mystery that makes you sit up and listen – it’s one of the most captivating of any concerto openings. When the violin enters, it’s as if it is speaking, catching the listener from the very first second. There is a certain militaristic element to it, with the use of percussion and rhythm, while also being full of temperament. Britten combines this strictness with passion – there is an incredible beauty and lyricism, with the violin soaring throughout the concerto. The orchestration is rich and full-blooded, and Britten uses some really spectacular instrumentation – muted trumpets, pizzicatos in strings with harp, tuba with piccolo flute, for example.
'When the violin enters, it’s as if it is speaking, catching the listener from the very first second.'
The whole concerto is in one single piece, without separate movements, although there is a breathless pause before the second movement starts. The second movement leads into the cadenza, which is fireworks for the violinist. It has all the ingredients of a great violin concerto, technically, and it’s so exciting to play.
For me, the most powerful movement is the final one – the Passacaglia. It’s as if the violinist is fighting a battle against death throughout the whole movement. As it ends, the orchestra is already on the other side, playing in the major key, but the violinist is still fighting this painful battle and won’t give up. It fights until the very last bar. It’s like a requiem – the orchestra is already in heaven, while the violin is still on earth, among us, clinging on to the pain, reluctant to leave it all behind to go into the divine. It is powerful.
It is one of the most important pieces I have ever played and it has enriched my life. It’s impossible to choose a favourite concerto, but this is up there in the top five. I’m very much looking forward to working with the LSO, especially as it is the Orchestra I first heard playing the concerto. The recording with Rostropovich, who of course was a great friend of Britten, will always stand out for me as the definitive interpretation of the concerto, and I’m looking forward to interviewing the players who were in the Orchestra for that recording!'
Vilde Frang performs Britten's Violin Concerto on Sunday 15 March, alongside Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and his Sixth Symphony, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. Click here for more information or to book tickets.