Benjamin Britten Unknown Britten (feat: sop. Sandrine Piau, Northern Sinfonia, cond. Thomas Zehetmair) Review

Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Buy this for Les Illuminations, but savour it for so many new discoveries.

Andrew McGregor 2009

Unknown Britten is an intriguing title, given that the major work here is Les Illuminations; hardly an unknown quantity on disc.

Sandrine Piau makes a superb soloist – impeccable French, or course, but she brings so much more to bear with her cool, clear sound, and often seriously beautiful phrasing, floating ethereally to the centre of Rimbaud’s poetry. It’s good to be reminded that the first complete performance of Les Illuminations was given by the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, but “unknown” Britten?

That’s where the three extra songs come into play. Britten prepared 13 Rimbaud settings, only 10 of which made the final sequence. The other three were finished, but never orchestrated, until Colin Matthews stepped into the breach for this new recording. So after the original ending, what follows here is Phrase – a nature scene achieved through operatic artifice; then Aube – a summer dawn song, which achieves an almost Mahlerian intensity; and finally A une raison – to an imaginary being: “One beat of your finger upon the drum sets loose all sounds, and is the birth of a new harmony.”

Piau is magically accompanied by the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Thomas Zehetmair, and even without the extra songs I’d want this disc for Les Illuminations. But there are actually eight previously unrecorded Britten pieces to discover, from an untitled Fragment for Strings by the 16-year-old student, to unfinished movements for a Rondo Concertante for piano and strings, tidied up again by Colin Matthews, who’s also managed to create Three Movements for a Clarinet Concerto, based on a discarded piece intended for Benny Goodman in 1941. That gets a tremendous performance from Michael Collins; Rolf Hind animates the piano pieces, and Michael Thompson and Richard Watkins are the horn players for ‘In memoriam Dennis Brain’, in which Britten’s anguish at the sudden death of the great horn player for whom he’d written his Serenade is keenly communicated. That’s another Colin Matthews completion, and he deserves second billing on the CD.

Buy this for Les Illuminations, but savour it for so many new discoveries.

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