Here's your disc of the week for March 10, 2013. Each week CBC Radio 2's In Concert looks at new classical music releases and selects one recording that you'll want to know about.
Artists: Amsterdam Sinfonietta led by Candida Thomson with Barbara Hannigan, soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor, and Jasper de Waal, horn.
Repertoire: Les illuminations; Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge; Serenade for tenor, horn and string orchestra, and Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, all by Benjamin Britten.
Label: Channel Classics.
Benjamin Britten was born 100 years ago in Lowestoft, Suffolk, to a dentist father and a mother who dabbled in amateur music-making. He became one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century, revered, especially, for his operas. But Britten is perhaps more admired than loved. His music, which is sometimes rather austere and forbidding, isn't the kind of thing you can cuddle up and get close to on first hearing. He can be high maintenance – difficult, but ultimately rewarding.
One advantage of all the centenary celebrations is that many listeners are finally making his acquaintance with concert halls around the world awash in live performances and new recordings devoted to Britten's music arriving every week. One of the most appealing new CDs comes from the Dutch label Channel Classics. It features the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, a terrific, conductorless ensemble, in several works for string orchestra played with sumptuous colours and technical precision.
One of the highlights is Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Composed in just three weeks, the work was inspired by, and dedicated to, Britten's musical mentor and composition teacher. It's made up of a theme and 10 variations that parody familiar musical forms – a demonic march, an over-the-top Italian aria, a tipsy Viennese waltz – and this Dutch ensemble tackles it with gusto and flair.
The big draw, though, is Britten's brilliant Les illuminations, a song cycle based on the ecstatic poetry of decadent 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. The soloist here is the transcendent Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who now lives in Amsterdam and has become the toast of the European new music scene. A regular with the Berlin Philharmonic with a growing reputation as a gifted conductor, Hannigan brings meticulous musicianship and complete command of the text to this performance. It's simply stunning, and a great way to get to know Benjamin Britten, up close and personal.
You can stream Les Illuminations below until Friday, March 15:
Channel Classic's "Making of" video
Disc of the week: James Ehnes plays Béla Bartók
Disc of the week: Zodiac Trio plays Stravinsky, Bacri and Bartók
on Mar 10, 2013