Unknown Britten

0 of 5 stars

Les Illuminations, Op.18 [presented with three new songs orchestrated by Colin Matthews]
Rondo Concertante
In memoriam Dennis Brain
Untitled Fragment
Movements for a Clarinet Concerto

Sandrine Piau (soprano) [Les illuminations]

Rolf Hind (piano) [Rondo Concertante; Variations]

Michael Thompson, Richard Watkins, Peter Francomb & Chris Griffiths (horns) [In memoriam Dennis Brain]

Michael Collins (clarinet)

Northern Sinfonia
Thomas Zehetmair

All recorded in The Sage Gateshead – Les illuminations on 14 & 15 January 2009, the remaining works on 22 & 23 May 2008

Reviewed by: Anne Ozorio

Reviewed: September 2009
CD No: NMC D140
Duration: 78 minutes



There’s a lot of “unknown Britten” about! This prolific composer kept most of his work, including sketches, reasonably well documented, and it’s fascinating as it sheds light on his development as a composer. Britten composed songs from the age of six, and played with a toy on which he could arrange wooden blocks with keys, notes and time signatures, to compose music for fun. Some of his manuscripts are on display at The Red House (where he and Peter Pears lived), neatly copied books, with the name E. B. Britten on the title page.

The earliest pieces on this NMC release date from 1930, when Britten, aged 17, started his first term at the Royal College of Music, and include a fragment (for string orchestra) that lasts less than three minutes but is bold and ambitious. In his diary for 6-13 October 1930, Britten noted each phase of his work on Rondo Concertante (for piano and strings). The two sections are like half-finished experiments: the second stark and angular, as if Britten were exploring Bartók. Rolf Hind makes them sound convincing and also makes a virtue out of the spare textures of Variations (piano alone) and hints at what might have been.

While “Les illuminations” is certainly not “unknown”, this recording includes three songs originally part of it but discarded before publication. Initially Britten had planned a cycle of seven Rimbaud settings; eventually he sketched fourteen, one of which is fragmentary, before deciding on the definitive sequence. ‘Aube’ is dated 9 July 1939, the day before ‘Royauté’, and describes the poet chasing the summer dawn as if it were a young girl. ‘Phrase’ (to Rimbaud’s “Fête d’Hiver”, was planned to precede ‘Marine’. Unlike ‘À une raison’, a relatively undistinguished song, ‘Phrase’ is fairly strong. These settings did not reach orchestration, so Colin Matthews ensures they can be heard in context. He’s uncommonly sensitive to Britten’s idiom, so the flow is natural and uninterrupted. Sandrine Piau’s light, high timbre may seem a little over-bright but hearing “Les illuminations” like this enhances the hyper-lucidity of the strange images.

In Memoriam Dennis Brain (four horns and strings) was written after the sudden, shocking death of Britten’s close friend, so closely connected to “Serenade for tenor, horn and strings”, hence the explicit, inescapable references to it. The Allegro section is promising, darker and even more chilling. It’s a moving tribute to Brain, its unfinished state appropriate.

Britten had planned to write a clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman. The original short score of 26 pages was impounded by US Immigration in 1941, on the grounds that it was some kind of secret code! It is known that Britten and Pears were being watched by the FBI. Decades later when some documents were released under the Freedom of Information Act, whole sentences were blacked out, and still considered too sensitive for release.

Colin Matthews’s knowledge of Britten’s work allowed him to link the fragments of the clarinet concerto with the American Overture and Mazurka Elegiaca, also sketched in the same period, and bearing similarities. He also found another 100 bars of a work for orchestra written on the same manuscript paper as the clarinet project. The resulting Movements for a Clarinet Concerto is thus very well reasoned, bringing together pieces of Britten’s music in a way that can be performed in practical terms.

With fine recording quality, excellent presentation (including sung texts for “Les Illuminations”, French and English) and persuasive performances, this is a notable issue.

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