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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

The Unknown Britten

  • In Memoriam Dennis Brain for 4 Horns & Strings
  • Les Illuminations, Op. 18 *
  • 3 Movements for a Clarinet Concerto
  • Rondo Concertante for Piano & Strings
  • Untitled Fragment for Strings
  • Variations for Piano
* Sandrine Piau, soprano
Michael Collins, clarinet
Rolf Hind, piano
Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair
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All eight works presented on this disc have never been previously recorded enough although, interestingly enough, they span both ends of Britten's career.

The Untitled Fragment and Rondo Concertante for Piano and Strings both date from 1930 when the composer was just 16 and newly enrolled at the Royal College of Music. Both pieces are superbly textured and full of striking ideas. They are harmonically assured and quite adventurous and in Colin Matthews' superb editing, the Rondo sounds even more mature than it would at first appear to be.

The three additional songs from "Les Illuminations" (1939-40), again in Matthews' orchestration are evocative, intense and often engrossing, and it will always be a mystery why Britten discarded them completely. Sandrine Pau's stylish and imaginative singing is consistently arresting and this version is certainly one of the best currently available on disc.

The 3 Movements for a Clarinet Concerto are a collation from 3 different sources, but the creative germ finds its beginnings way back in 1941 when Britten was in the U.S. and began writing a concerto for fabled clarinetist Benny Goodman. By the time he returned to England in 1942 only the first movement was completed in short score and the project was abandoned. Thanks to Colin Matthews who orchestrated the piece, added the 1941 "Mazurka elegiaca" and filled out the sketches from another unfinished work, we now can enjoy some truly attractive and sturdy music which is as impressive as it is revealing.

Michael Collins' breezy virtuosity is a joy throughout and his commitment to the piece is unwavering. Matthews has also masterfully arranged the Dennis Brain piece; an anguished, angry and affecting outpouring dedicated to the famous horn player who died so tragically in a car crash in 1958.

To sum up, all the performances are superb and throughout, Zehetmair coaxes the orchestra into razor-sharp playing full of sensitively shaped sounds. Undoubtedly one of the most important Britten issues of the last decade recorded in fine sound and with fascinating annotations which are a must read.

Copyright © 2010, Gerald Fenech