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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976)
The Rarities

Canticle II : Abraham and Isaac Op.51 (1952)
Gemini Variations Op.73 (1965)
A Birthday Hansel Op.92 (1975)
Cantata Academica Op.62 (1959)
Russian Funeral (1936)
Cantata Misericordium Op.69 (1963)
Children's Crusade Op.82 (1969)
The Poet's Echo Op.76 (1965)
Six Hölderlin Fragments Op.61 (1958)
Two Insect Pieces (1935)
Norma Procter (contralto); Peter Pears (tenor); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); Owen Brannigan (bass); Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano); Helen Watts (contralto); Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano); Heinz Holliger (oboe); Mstislav Rostropovich (piano); András Schiff (piano); Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, John Iveson; Ian Cobb, John Clegg (piano); Jonathan Smith (organ); Wandsworth School Boys' Choir, Russell Burgess, Benjamin Britten; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, George Malcolm, Benjamin Britten
Recorded : 1957, 1961, 1963-4, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1979 and 1991
DECCA 468 811-2 [75:40+72:34]

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All the pieces in this generous compilation are - to a certain extent - rarities, particularly in so far as most of them have been recorded once, though they have been re-issued in different couplings both in LP and in CD format.

However, the present recording of Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac Op.51, made in 1957 as part of a release coupling the first three canticles, was never released. (The first three canticles were on ARGO and later re-issued in CD format as DECCA 425716-2LM with John Hahessy as boy alto in Canticle II). I must confess that this beautiful setting of words from the Chester Miracle Play is new to me and the excellent performance (and recording) is a most welcome novelty (or should I say rarity?). Both singers are in top form and sing beautifully throughout. Britten set the words as a short dramatic scena and the ominous voice of God is given to both singers in doubling unison (a masterly stroke of imagination). This marvellous piece is also notable for the hints it provides: indeed, some of the music was reworked and expanded in the similar Abraham and Isaac section from the War Requiem. A real minor masterpiece in a superb performance.

Gemini Variations Op.72 were written in 1965 for the Hungarian twins Gabor and Zoltan Jeney whom Britten met in Budapest and who approached him with a request for a work for them (both were able pianists whereas one twin played the violin and the other the flute). Britten agreed provided they wrote him a letter (in English!) explaining what they liked, what they were interested in and why they wanted a piece from him. They complied and Britten had thus to write the piece. It is a clever set of variations and fugue on a theme of Kodaly (i.e. that from the fourth of his Epigrams) though it is not one of his most attractive pieces. The Jeney brothers recorded it in 1966 and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody else seems to have been interested in it.

A Birthday Hansel Op.92 was written in 1975 as a 75th birthday present to the Queen Mother and is thus one of Britten's very last works. It is a setting for tenor and harp of poems by Robert Burns. Though it is expertly done, as ever, it fails to convince me as do some other late Britten works such as Sacred and Profane Op.91 or the Third String Quartet. In fact though I do know these pieces quite well, I am still undecided as to whether they are written in a more austere, economical manner or whether Britten's imagination had simply dried-out. However, a very fine reading by the original performers although Pears' voice may sound strained at times.

Though an occasional piece written to mark the 500th anniversary of the University of Basle and setting words from the University's Charter as well as from songs in praise of the City of Basle, Britten's Cantata Academica Op.62 of 1959 is a delightful, un-academic romp (it even includes a Tema seriale con Fuga). Britten in his most unbridled outdoor mood, gently parodying classical forms such as recitative, fugue and the like. Curiously this colourful, umproblematic piece has only been recorded once: originally as L'OISEAU-LYRE OSL 50206, later re-issued with Cantata Misericordium Op.69 and (I think) A Boy Was Born, and finally in CD format as DECCA 425153-2LM. The present performers have all had long association with Britten's music and George Malcolm conducts an affectionate, zestful reading of this unjustly neglected piece.

Russian Funeral (1936) is certainly a Britten rarity which has now been regularly played and recorded by brass ensembles (one of the most recent recordings of it is that by Sir Simon Rattle as a fill-up of his recording of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony).

Commissioned to celebrate the Red Cross' centenary, the Cantata Misericordium Op.69 (1962) sets Latin words by Patrick Wilkinson retelling the tale of the Good Samaritan. Though scored for rather modest forces (strings, harp, piano and timpani), this is a deeply dramatic piece conceived almost in operatic terms. Britten actually conducts this recorded performance as a small-scale chamber opera and imbues his reading with many dramatic shadings emphasizing the dramatic content of the story. When reviewing Hickox's more recent recording (CHANDOS 8997) I noted that contrary to Britten, Hickox rather viewed the piece as a cantata with less emphasis on dramatic contrasts.

Children's Crusade Op.82 (1969) sets Hans Keller's English translation of Brecht's moving poem Kinderkreuzzug for children's voices, organ, two pianos and percussion. The present - and so far only - recording was made in 1970 with Britten and Russell Burgess conducting the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir (among the soloists was the then young Adrian Thompson) and a handful of players including Ian Cobb and John Clegg (pianos), Jonathan Smith (organ) and six percussion players. Children's Crusade is a powerful, deeply-felt statement against war, injustice, racism and fascism, but again it fails to convince me completely. However, this re-issue is most welcome.

The Poet's Echo Op.76, a song cycle on poems by Pushkin, was written for the present performers, i.e. Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband Mstislav Rostropovich. This is one of Britten's finest song cycles which is conspicuously absent from recitals and recordings, probably because of the language. Surprising still that no other Russian (or Russian-speaking) soprano ever took it up. With that of Canticle II, this is one of the finest works in the compilation.

Similarly the Six Hölderlin Fragments Op.61 (1968), yet another strong Britten cycle, does not seem to have attracted much attention either. A pity for again this is an unjustly neglected piece and one hopes that this re-issue may put some of these works on the map again and prompt singers to think about them.

The Two Insect Pieces of 1935 for oboe and piano have remained a Britten rarity for many long years. However they were seized upon by a number of oboists and have been recorded over the last years. The present recording by Heinz Holliger and András Schiff is the most recent in this collection. It was made in 1991 and released in 1994 (though I must confess that I do not remember that disc). Needless to say that Holliger and Schiff are excellent and their performance of Two Insect Pieces brilliantly rounds off this welcome selection.

Warmly recommended for there is much to admire and relish here, most of all a superb performance of Abraham and Isaac that incomprehensibly «remained in the can» for forty years. This set might be worth having for this alone.

Hubert Culot

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