Britten’s Piano Concerto, composed in 1938 when he was only 24 years old, was his first major work for the piano. Yet, as Steven Osborne describes in this week’s film, not many more came forth afterwards – Young Apollo, op. 16 in 1939 and Diversions, op. 21 the following year. Britten was a marvellous pianist himself, and premiered his very energetic and technically demanding concerto at the Proms in 1938. He also gave the American Premiere in January 1940 – an occasion not only memorable for his performance but for the fact that the piano gave way under him during the first movement.
It was a great success with the Prom audience at its first performance, but critically (and among some of his friends) it took something of a beating. Many of the critics found it shamelessly crowd-pleasing at best, brash at worst, and lacking much in the way of substance. William McNaught’s review in the Musical Times was fairly typical: ‘This is not a stylish work. Mr Britten’s cleverness, of which he has frequently been told, has got the better of him and led him into all sorts of errors, the worst of which are errors of taste.’ Since then, however, the piece has gained in popularity and critical estimation. Steven Osborne’s recording, made for Hyperion in 2008 is a remarkable account of this most effervescent and virtuosic of concertos.