BRITTEN:  An American Overture, Op. 27.  Ballad of Heroes, Op. 14. Diversions for Piano (left hand) and Orchestra, Op. 21 (Peter Donohoe, pianist). The Building of the House Overture, Op. 79.  Praise We Great MenSuite on English Folk Tunes:  'A time there was...' Op. 90.  Canadian Carnival, Op. 19.  Young Apollo, Op. 16. Quatre Chansons francaises (Jill Gomez, soprano).  Scottish Ballad, Op. 26. Occasional Overture, Op. 38.  Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20
City of Birmingham Orch & Chorus/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.

EMI CLASSICS 73983 (2 CDs) (M) (DDD)  TT:  78:07 & 77:34

Almost a decade ago EMI issued a twin-CD set (at full price) containing music listed above. That  CD set  has been discontinued, and now we have these recordings  at a much more reasonable price. This is  a collection sure to attract those who only know Britten's music from his more popular works. For the most part the music was composed early in Britten's career although there are  two late works. With the exception of Sinfonia da Requiem all of this music is relatively unknown and  very much work hearing, particularly in performances as fine and authoritative as  these.

In 1946 Britten wrote a work he called Occasional Overture on a commission from Artur Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra  but it wasn't performed by them -- or anyone.  The score was rediscovered  in 1976; the composer denied writing it only admitting it was his work after seeing the manuscript.  Renamed American Overture to avoid confusion with a later work with that name, it had its premiere in 1983 by the performers on this CD.  Britten's second Occasional Overture  was written for a BBC broadcast conducted by Sir Adrian Boult to mark the opening of the BBC Third Programme in September 1946, the only occasion it was performed during Britten's lifetime.

Peter Donohoe is the superb soloist in Diversions, Op. 21 for piano left-hand composed in 1940 for Paul Wittgenstein as a theme with eleven imaginative variations,  unfortunately seldom heard in the concert hall. What a dazzling piece it is!  Donohoe is joined by Philip Fowke in a vivid performance of Scottish Ballad, Op. 26 written for the Bartlett-Robertson duo and premiered by them with Eugene Goossens and the Cincinnati Symphony in 1941, which ends with a captivating reel -- Britten at his light-hearted best.  Donohoe also is featured, along with a string quartet (Felix Kok/Jeremy Ballard, violins; Peter Cole, viola; Michael Kaznowski, cello) and string orchestra, in the musically exuberant Young Apollo.

Other youthful works include the exquisite Quatre Chansons francaises which were premiered by Heather Harper in 1980, more than a half-century after they were composed, here are sung to perfection by Jill Gomez.  This also is the premiere recording of Ballad of Heroes, written in 1939, a cantata for high voice ( tenor Robert Tear), chorus and orchestra, an early example of  Britten's pacifism, an idea  later expanded in his War Requiem.

The Building of the House is a five-minute overture composed to commemorate the opening of the Snape Maltings concert hall by Queen Elizabeth II June 2, 1967. The use of a chorus, singing lines from Psalm 127, is unique for an overture.  Praise We Great Men  was  Britten's final work,  written for Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony in 1977.  However,  poor health didn't permit its completion; he wrote about a third which Colin Matthews, a close associate, completed from Britten's sketches.  The premiere took place in August 1985 with Rostropovich and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Canadian Carnival is a 14-minute diversion suggested by Britten's short stay in Canada in 1939, a delectable treatment of dances based largely on Canadian folksongs, opening and closing with trumpet fanfares.  The light mood  is broken only by the Mahleresque prologue and epilogue.  Sinfonia da Requiem is the best-known work in this set.  When  Serge Koussevitzky conducted it in Boston in 1942 he was so impressed  that he directed the Koussevitzky Foundation to commission Peter Grimes.  Britten's last completed orchestral work, Suite on English Folk Tunes: 'A time there was...' Op. 90, dedicated to Percy Grainger, again finds the composer in a light mood.

Performances on this reissue are of the highest quality with sonics to match. Librettos are provided as needed, with fine program notes by Mervyn Cooke.  This is an essential set for those who enjoy music of Britten.

R.E.B. (Dec. 2000)