UNKNOWN BRITTEN

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Purists likely will complain that the material presented here is not only “unknown” Britten, but more exactly “uncompleted” and/or “unused” Britten. But if they ignore this release for that reason, they will miss a very interesting–and engaging–program that, while not offering any surprising discoveries, nevertheless contains some quite substantial, fully formed entries along with the uncompleted material. The substantial bits include three songs–which Britten finished but didn’t orchestrate–that were intended for but ultimately omitted from Les Illuminations. The longest of these, “Aube”, is a very impressive piece on its own, longer than any among the 10 songs Britten did use–and which we also hear, superbly sung by soprano Sandrine Piau. Another substantial work is the Rondo Concertante, a 1930 piece for piano and strings that, although never completed, runs to nearly 15 minutes. In this case, especially in the second-movement Lento, with its interminably long, tedious exposition in octaves, you realize that this was a work that “needs work”, but it’s definitely Britten and it’s certainly a challenge for the pianist.

Nearly all of the pieces here were in some way brought to performing condition by Colin Matthews, whether orchestrating the three Les Illuminations songs, reforming a couple of Britten’s existing works to make the unfinished Clarinet Concerto into a three-movement concert piece, or turning sketches into playable form, such as for the wonderful In memoriam Dennis Brain, for four horns and strings that Britten began in January, 1958. In every case Matthews was scrupulously respectful of Britten’s original writing and did his best to preserve the composer’s ideas and structures while enabling the music to stand more or less on its own in performance. And, except for the Dennis Brain piece and the Untitled Fragment for strings, both of which just sort of quietly end, Matthews has given performers some fine material–particularly Aube and the Movements for a Clarinet Concerto–for addition to the concert repertoire.

The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly the above-mentioned Sandrine Piau, the Northern Sinfonia strings, and pianist Rolf Hind, who has some very demanding music in front of him! All is captured in stellar sound, accompanied by informative notes that explain the context and derivation of each piece. Highly recommended. [1/14/2010]



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Recording Details:

Album Title: UNKNOWN BRITTEN

BENJAMIN BRITTEN - Les Illuminations Op. 18 (plus 3 additional songs); Rondo concertante (1930); In memoriam Dennis Brain (1958); Untitled Fragment (1930); Variations (1965); Movements for a Clarinet Concerto (1942)


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