Britten: Les illuminations; Sinfonia da Requiem; Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo

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WORKS: Les illuminations; Sinfonia da Requiem; Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo
PERFORMER: Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano); CBS SO, New York PO/John Barbirolli
NMC’s first foray into the archive is every bit as essential as its thirty-odd releases of recent and neglected British music. Britten himself set down authoritative and largely inspired recordings of practically everything of importance he wrote, beginning with an account of the Michelangelo Sonnets he and Peter Pears made in 1942, soon after its official premiere following their return to England from the USA (reissued on Pearl GEMM CD 9177). The three American performances on this disc predate even this recording and preserve a pre-‘first-performance’ try-out of the Sonnets, the American premiere of Les illuminations (sadly not with the original soloist, Sophie Wyss) and the world premiere of the Sinfonia da Requiem, searingly alive under Barbirolli.


These precious documents, preserved on worn vinyl in the Britten-Pears Library, often sound crackly and distorted, but they demonstrate just how lucky Britten was in the dedication and empathy of his early performers. Like the official Sonnets recording of a year or so later, this one perpetuates the occasional misaccentuations of Britten’s Italian word-setting corrected in the published vocal score. Technically and interpretatively it feels much more confident. Pears’s (and Britten’s) art was later to become more subtle, searching – and mannered; here we can, however dimly, hear it at its unaffected, boldly rhetorical best. Antony Bye