Session Report: A Precious Gift - Playing Britten’s viola

Hélène Clément, with Bridge and Britten's viola (L1008572) © Gerard Collett Photography

Benjamin Britten’s 19th-century viola was a present to him from Frank Bridge. Violist Hélène Clément speaks to Carlos María Solare about recording an album featuring music by both composers on which this remarkable instrument takes centre stage

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Most readers of The Strad  will be familiar with the fact that both the composer Bridge and his pupil Britten were proficient viola players. Mainly a chamber musician, Bridge was a member of the English Quartet, premiering many works by his contemporaries as well as a few by himself. Britten didn’t play the viola professionally, but he did make a recording on it: on the last 78rpm side of the Zorian Quartet’s 1946 album of his String Quartet no.2, the composer joined the ensemble for Purcell’s five-part Fantasia upon One Note, holding the eponymous middle C for the four minutes of the piece’s duration!

The instrument Britten played on that recording had been given to him by Bridge as a farewell present when he and Peter Pears left for the US shortly before the beginning of the Second World War (it turned out to be the last time Bridge and Britten saw each other). It was made in 1843 by the Milanese luthier Francesco Giussani, of whom no other instruments are known. Giussani was also a professional viola player; he is listed as principal viola in the orchestra of Milan’s Teatro Re in the 1830s. The instrument – with a back length of 16.25 inches (412mm) – was sold to Bridge in 1905 by W.E. Hill & Sons (in their certificate, the maker’s name is misspelt as ‘Guissani’). Britten continued to play it occasionally at private musical gatherings, and in 1970 he loaned it to Cecil Aronowitz, who probably used it for the UK premiere of the string orchestral version of the composer’s Lachrymae, given at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1977. From the early 1980s until 2009, the viola was played by Paul Cassidy of the Brodsky Quartet…

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