Unknown Britten
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Les Illuminations, Op. 18 (1939) [23:02]1
BRITTEN orch. Colin MATTHEWS (b.1946) Les Illuminations: three additional songs: Phrase (c.1939) [0:52] 2; Aube (1939) [4:59] 2; A une raison (c.1939) [2:36] 2
BRITTEN realized MATTHEWS Rondo Concertante (1930) [14:58] 3 In memoriam Dennis Brain (c.1958) [3:53] 4
BRITTEN Untitled Fragment (1930) [2:44] 5 Variations (1965) [6:26] 6
BRITTEN realized MATTHEWS Movements for a Clarinet Concerto (c.1942) [17:50] 7
1-2Sandrine Piau (soprano), 3,6Rolf Hind (piano), 7Michael Collins (clarinet), 4Michael Thompson, Richard Watkins, Peter Francomb, Chris Griffiths (horns),
1-5,7Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair
rec. Hall One, The Sage, Gateshead 3-7; 22-23 May 2008, 1-2; 14-15 January 2009, DDD.
Booklet includes French sung texts and an English translation.
NMC D 140 [78:12]
‘Unknown Britten’ begins with the known, his musical vision of Rimbaud’s poetic vision: Les illuminations, a cycle for soprano or tenor and written for the soprano Sophie Wyss.
In the Fanfare (tr. 1) soft trills from cellos and basses provide a seething background for vehement fanfares from the violins and violas. Firm-voiced declamation from Sandrine Piau precedes the beauteous dancing of the individual soul as represented by solo violin. Towns (tr. 2) is all pride in Piau’s refrain, ‘Ce sont des villes’. There are great appoggiatura-approached leaps to top A at ‘Les Bacchantes des banlieues sanglotent’ (0:58). This is all in the midst of constant animation from the strings. The effect is intensified by a close and wide recording which, even though not surround sound, seems to be all around you. We then turn to a purely lyrical voice for Phrase (tr. 3) which ends with a beautifully controlled octave glissando descent from top B flat on ‘danse’ (0:59). Antique (tr. 4) is here a comely dance shared by voice and solo violin, both conveying delight and engagement. In Royalty (tr. 5) the trappings of majesty come across. Marine (tr. 6) is a virtuosic display from voice and orchestra of a range of activity on the water. This tracks through a pointillist opening to a broader close with, now and then, rippling semiquaver roulades. The title Interlude (tr. 7) seems somewhat misleading for a descending motif from second violins, violas, cellos and first violins in turn marked ‘appassionato’. Nevertheless its repetition becomes increasingly haunting as it writhes across the string parts. Piau provides poised soft ownership of the savage parade before a cello solo which is breathtakingly enchanting. Being beauteous (tr. 8), the movement dedicated to Peter Pears, has the most lyrical passages of all. In keeping with the poem these are contrasted with ones marked ‘leggiero’, the first at ‘monter, s’elargir et rambler comme un spectre’ (0:37) which I felt a touch brusquely delivered. That said, the later muted solo violin echo of the voice is lovely indeed. Parade (tr. 9) is vividly realized. It moves from plain but rather grim reportage at the opening to a raspingly vehement close. Then comes the complete contrast of Departure (tr. 10), a retrospect in which the richness of past experience is evoked before all fades. You have experienced a gripping performance revealing the work’s richness and variety of nuance.
I compared the classic 1970 Heather Harper, Northern Sinfonia/Neville Marriner account (EMI 3522862). Harper seems to inhabit the work’s experiences whereas Piau surveys them with a keen intelligence. There’s more sheer joy in Harper’s Towns, her ‘danse’ in Phrase is more magnetic, her Royalty has more sparkle and mischief, her Marine is more bracing. On the other hand Zehetmair’s direction has greater edge, the violin solo in Fanfare is more personal, the slower Interlude has more angst. Piau’s Being beauteous has more poised lyricism. Piau’s and Zehetmair’s Parade is more involved and full of character. Harper’s Departure is more caring and regretful but Piau’s is luxuriant and concentrated.
Now for the unknown: three additional songs never orchestrated by Britten. Phrase (tr. 11), the same title as in the published work but with different words, offers brief but emphatic snapshots of evening entertainments contrasted with nature’s own activity. Matthews supplies lively touches of orchestral colour, like the flashes of violins’ candle bombs from 0:33. He does this without impeding the raw directness of the vocal declamation. There’s a magical expectation in the delicate backcloth of the strings. The flexible angularity of the vocal line of Dawn (tr. 12), gives way to urgency and excitement as previously shadowy outlines become clearer from 2:00. The sight of a cock provokes an imitation of its cry and a breathless chase is relished musically. The opening material returns (3:53) with violins and violas this time unmuted and the song climaxes in the transparency of noon. To an imaginary being (tr. 13) is the opposite of Phrase. About the inspiration of ‘the new love’ it lingers with haunting, sultry repetition. Here are chromatic descents of longing in the vocal line which Matthews luxuriantly backs with cellos. This is all fuelled by initial chromatic ascents.
The Rondo Concertante for piano and strings was never completed by Britten. Its sketches have been sensitively filled out by Matthews. It begins Allegro molto (tr. 14), a restless journey with a manically repeated motif around which the strings skitter. The piano gradually broadens the motif modally from 1:50 and introduces a charming phase (2:12) rather like late Bridge and earlier Bridge appearing in turn. At 3:31 the opening material returns but now seems to have become part of a more varied world in which there are brighter elements on the horizon before a more biting coda. The Lento movement (tr. 15) is fascinating. It begins with 3 minutes of piano solo: rhetorical, serious, pondering and with a tension between reflection and progression. The take-up by the strings is more mysterious, emotive, pleading, gradually increasing in sonority and intensity. The piano’s accompanying chords become more pungent. At 6:57 comes a theme by exploring violins. It’s of sad cast but appreciable purpose which suggests some light at the end of the tunnel.
In memoriam Dennis Brain uses four horns with strings as if to proclaim four horns are needed adequately to reflect the power, range and personality of the man. The melodic material is the Dirge, This ae night, the starkest piece in Britten’s Serenade written for Brain and Pears. In the slow introduction (tr. 16) it opens softly on two horns but by 0:12 reaches the caustic climax with four horns and a toll of tubular bells to remind us of its present context. The pain of this climax returns twice more with solo horn passages between. This again recalls the musical origin. After this there is a ‘moderately quick’ main body (tr. 17). This opens in march-like fashion in the strings with livelier horns more celebratory of Brain’s dexterity. It brings to mind the Serenade’s Hymn, Queen and huntress, chaste and fair. But the Dirge – spoken by the strings - is still in the background, and sometimes in the foreground. This is all sensitively handled by Zehetmair and his soloists, sufficiently stark but not overdone.
The Untitled fragment for strings (tr. 18) is recognisably early Britten. You can hear this in the spikier angularity of its declamatory opening and then in its restless thrust. The second phase (1:14) featuring pizzicato strings seems like a spectral deconstruction of what has gone before. The double-basses reintroduce the opening theme. The third phase (1:40) is given a rhythmic spur by the violas. The blithe treatment of the theme by violins now becomes more lyrical in Britten’s latter more airily accessible manner. The fourth phase (2:11) finds cello solo spasmodically brushed by muted violins divided into four parts. The disturbing, barely audible final chord is pp and tremolando sul ponticello. Britten then left the piece unfinished.
The Variations for solo piano begin limpidly yet also freely. Variation 1 (tr. 19) has a gracefully floating character. Variation 2 (tr. 20) which adds sustained minims in octaves in the left-hand pedal feels denser and more cloudy. Variation 3 (tr. 21) introduces semiquaver and demisemiquaver flourishes which make it more obviously the test-piece intended for the second Leeds Piano Competition. Variation 4 (tr. 22) is legato but occupies a kind of mid-point between the moods of Variations 2 and 3. It becomes louder, more intense and then calms. In doing so it traverses a wider emotional span than the other variations. Variation 5 (tr. 23), over a restful version of the basic material, features darting octave descents which reminded me of those in the Peter Grimes Moonlight interlude. Variation 6 (tr. 24) by contrast is all assertiveness and discipline. Rolf Hind brings all the contrasts to life without any compromising of clarity.
The first of the Movements for a clarinet concerto (tr. 25) was edited for performance by Matthews from Britten’s draft. It sets off energetically like a chase but is soon halted (0:30), dolce, tranquillo, to admire the beauty of the view in an aria-like theme but with little wisps of the first theme’s energy mischievously in the background. This hint of fusion of the two themes is now developed. The clarinet solo starts cantering again with the first theme (from 1:51) while the strings supply the rising motif of the second. From 3:24 the clarinet cavorts, albeit gently, over a dreamy, muted violin version of the second theme. By 4:38 virtually all that’s left is a becalmed transformation of the first theme. This looks just clever but is very satisfying to hear particularly in this fine performance with soloist and ensemble stylishly matched. Britten wrote no more. To provide a second movement (tr. 26) Matthews orchestrated Britten’s Mazurka elegiaca for 2 pianos (1941), appropriately transforming its character somewhat for its new context. The opening solo on Piano 2 becomes a smoother, more sinuous experience as an oboe solo. The right hand of the Piano 1 opening, marked ‘cantabile’ becomes a soaring clarinet accompaniment, the left hand given to the horn. At 1:04 the clarinet takes over the melody, in Piano 2 originally, while the violins have the Piano 1 material. At 2:52 begins a section originally marked ‘Animato appassionato’. Now it’s more jaunty and festive. The return of the opening melody gives the clarinet the tune again alongside soothing descending violins. At 5:40 a passage originally marked ‘ppp solenne’ has a wonderfully spectral character in Matthews’ scoring for strings. The clarinet then has the last wisps of melody below returning soothing violin descents. For the finale (tr. 28) Matthews adapted and completed Britten’s sketch for a projected Sonata for orchestra (1943). It’s a quizzical, chirpy piece of pretty constant momentum, the rhythmic vitality and melodic gaucherie of Walton plus an airy second theme (1:16) sporting guffaws at its phrase ends.
This last work provides a dynamic close to a generous showcase of brilliant orchestrations and realizations. The performances are terrific and the whole experience enhances our appreciation of Britten’s creative potential.
Michael Greenhalgh
Brilliant orchestrations and realizations which enhance our appreciation of Britten’s creative potential.