BENJAMIN BRITTEN = Unknown Britten – Les Illuminations (with three new songs); Rondo Concertante; In memoriam Dennis Brain; Untitled Fragment; Variations; Movements for a Clarinet Concerto – Soloists/Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair – NMC

by | Oct 28, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BENJAMIN BRITTEN = Unknown Britten – Les Illuminations, Op.18 (with three new songs orchestrated by Colin Matthews); Rondo Concertante; In memoriam Dennis Brain; Untitled Fragment; Variations; Movements for a Clarinet Concerto –  Sandrine Piau, soprano /Rolf Hind, piano / Michael Collins, clarinet /Michael Thompson,  Richard Watkins, Peter Francomb, Chris Griffiths, horns/ Northern Sinfonia /Thomas Zehetmair – NMC D140, 78:12 *****

Those who jump to the conclusion that music left languishing in a drawer for ages must have been  not worth hearing may well find themselves very pleasantly surprised by this generous programme from that adventurous label, NMC.

The CD opens with a piece which is far from unknown, but which includes three songs Britten did not include in the original selection for “Les Illuminations”. The songs are settings of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud, introduced to Britten by Wystan Auden, with whom he was on good terms at the time. Colin Matthews has orchestrated the final three songs, as Britten did not once he had decided on the chosen ten, and very fine they are, too. Sandrine Piau has just the right timbre for these songs, her youthful urgency most successful when required, and there is music-making here of the highest quality.

“Rondo Concertante” dates from 1930, from the pen of the 16-year-old Britten. This is remarkably mature music, perhaps inspired by Alban Berg and Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge wearing his modernist hat. Similarly the untitled “Fragment for Strings” a brief three minutes’ worth adds to the understanding of the germination of Britten’s composition with the teenager’s adventurous writing.

“Movements for a Clarinet Concerto” were sketched out while Britten and Pears were in the US; they had travelled there in 1939 before the outbreak of war and were unable to return to Britain until March, 1942. Britten had been much impressed by Benny Goodman’s playing of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, and Goodman in turn impressed by the music of the young composer and plans were soon afoot for Britten to write a concerto for clarinet. Philip Reed’s excellent essay points out Britten’s return was fraught with difficulties for his manuscripts, for both outgoing and incoming customs thought there was a possibility these were in some sort of code of use to the enemy. By the time he had reacquired all the manuscripts and with the advent of 1943, other projects had already become more important to him, including working on “Peter Grimes”. The first movement was resurrected in 1990 and edited by Matthews for performance by Michael Collins; the remaining movements were constructed from two contemporary pieces, “Mazurka Elegiaca” for two pianos for the middle movement, and sketches for a sonata for orchestra for the last. So, the end result isn’t the Clarinet Concerto Britten would have written, and Matthews title for the work makes this plain. Michael Collins’ enormous experience with the first part of this work shows in the whole performance; this comes across as a labour of love and his fine playing is most winning.

Dennis Brain was a long time close friend and fellow performer of Britten and Pears, the “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and strings” testifies to that, and the young horn player’s loss was keenly felt. “In Memoriam Dennis Brain” was begun in 1958, but Britten was unable to complete it. Realised by Matthews, it has an extremely effective slow introduction, and an allegro with percussion. The writing for four horns is exquisite, the playing by Michael Thompson, Richard Watkins, Peter Francomb and Chris Griffiths beautifully blended; this, for me, was a particularly exciting new audition and one hopes it will appear in future concert programmes.

The Variations for solo piano seem to have been planned to run to ten, though just the six were completed before Britten’s attention turned to other projects.  The quicker moments are especially demanding, but Rolf Hind’s secure playing tells me otherwise!

Thomas Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia produce performances of intensity; it’s evident from listening to the first bar of “Les Illuminations” that this is going to be a CD of the highest calibre.  All recorded in The Sage, Gateshead – “Les illuminations” on 14 & 15 January 2009, the remaining works on 22 & 23 May 2008, the sound quality is as good as it gets on standard CD. Not only is the orchestra well-balanced, but Sandrine Piau appears naturally just in front of the players and does not sound unnaturally spot-miked, this itself adding to the pleasure of her performance.

This CD contains much more than a postscript or shavings from a workbench and is a superb project superbly accomplished.

— Peter Joelson

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