Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week  Unknown Britten

Next Monday the record label NMC will release 'Unknown Britten', a collection of rediscovered works by Benjamin Britten. Quite remarkably for such a celebrated composer who has been dead for over thirty years, it contains a number of premiere recordings. Some of these are a bit fragmentary and, although interesting to hear once, probably don’t deserve repeated listening. However there are at least two outstanding things on this disc that I’d like to tell you about today.

Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten

Firstly, there is a superb performance of the composer’s song cycle Les Illuminations sung by the French soprano Sandrine Piau, but the really interesting thing is that it contains three extra songs which were originally sketched as part of the cycle but dropped before the final version. Here they are orchestrated by Colin Matthews and heard for the first time. Having a French soprano for these songs is definitely an advantage as the text sounds so natural. Sandrine Piau apparently fell in love with the music of Britten when she was still a child singing the role of Flora in the composer’s Turn of the Screw. Without doubt this recording goes straight up there with the very finest soprano versions on disc.

The other important work on this disc is the Clarinet Concerto, which was commissioned by jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman when Britten was in the United States in the early 1940s. He started work on it while still in America but when he passed through the New York Customs on his way home in 1942 all the manuscripts in his possession were impounded by the censor because they were thought to contain encoded secrets. By the time they were finally returned later that year he had moved on to Peter Grimes and the Concerto was never completed. The single surviving movement was completed and orchestrated by Colin Matthews back in 1989 but he says he always had the idea of turning it into a three-movement work. Twenty years on he has finally done that, using music from the same period as the basis for the other two movements. I am very impressed with what he has created and, bearing in mind there aren’t very many twentieth century clarinet concertos, this comes as a welcome addition to the repertoire and over the next few years will I expect be taken up by a number of clarinetists.

The concerto is played by Michael Collins who sounds on top form, while Thomas Zehetmair and his Northern Sinfonia are outstanding throughout the disc. I’ve put a preview video for you to watch on the website and the whole disc comes thoroughly recommended.

Unknown Britten

Northern Sinfonia, Thomas Zehetmair, with Sandrine Piau, Rolf Hind, Michael Collins ...

Available Format: CD