Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Unknown Britten - new material NMC

Unknown Britten? You'd think we knew all about a composer that famous, but in fact there's lots of material around we don't know. NMC Records has pioneered British new music for 20 years, so so this is a good time for a recording as unusual as this.

Unlike some composers, Britten didn't throw things away, so there is material still unpublished. Even fragments are valuable because they show how his compositional process operated: we can study how he approached things, even when he set them aside.

On this recording we have three extra songs which he didn't include in the final version of Les Illuminations. Aube, for example, stayed in the plan until quite late. We'll never know why Britten didn't continue but hearing these extra songs sheds light on how Les Illuminations functions as a whole, and how it evolved.

In memoriam Dennis Brain shows another aspect of Britten's working methods. Brain was the horn player who helped inspire the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. He died suddenly in an acccident, and Britten tried to compose a memorial. But he wasn't yet able to break from the spell cast by a masterpiece like the Serenade. The new piece floats, hanging, its potential never to be fulfilled. In that sense it is a genuinely moving tribute to a man whose life was cut off too early. And it also tells something about Britten's emotions, usually so tightly kept under wraps.

The movements for a clarinet concerto come from fragments Britten wrote for Benny Goodman – yes, "the" jazz clarinettist. This score was impounded by US Immigration because they thought it was a secret code and dangerous. Britten and Pears were persecuted by the FBI : to this day the details are still too sensitive to be released under the Freedom of Information Act. Please read more about this HERE. So the FBI watched Leonard Bernstein? That's not news.

Colin Matthews knows Britten's idiom intimately, so he's created a performing edition of the piece by connecting the fragment with several other fragments written on the same manuscript paper and at the same time. They form a quite convincing entity. Matthews (who helped create the performing version of Mahler's 10th) is sensitive enough to respect the inconclusive nature of the fragments, and isn't in any way "completing" them. But it's an excellent way to hear what might have been and isn't lost.

Please see the full review in Classical Source HERE which has more details. Listen to the video for sound samples and background. The CD can be ordered via NMC direct which I recommend because this is more than "just" a record label, it's a noble cause. NMC supports niche new music and provides support for British composers, "growing" the market in a way the big labels can't be bothered with.

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