The real treasure on this 2CD collection is undoubtedly the first recorded performance of the canticle, Abraham & Isaac. The reason it was unpublished does not reflect too well on the composer. Having written the piece for Kathleen Ferrier (ah, now, if only she had recorded it!), her tragically early death meant that Britten and Pears had to search out an alternative. Their choice lighted on Norma Procter and she gives a truly inspired performance partnering Pears, scaling down her voice to suit the young boy, yet singing with heart-breaking intensity. Sadly Britten's eye then lighted on a delectable young choirboy with whom he and Pears subsequently recorded the piece, only informing Procter after the event. One can imagine her disappointment. As she said on rehearing it, "I never thought it possible to hear this forbidden recording after 44 years - this side the tomb - and as I listened unbelieving - it was too much emotionally - the tears streamed down my face." And not just hers.
The other recordings on the discs are less unfamiliar, though none is performed often. Why? The Cantata Academica is a charmer and great fun, despite a rather arch Latin text. Try Jennifer Vyvyan soaring a high descant over the male voices humming an old student song. The Russian, German and Scottish song cycles are all worthy of their poets and more. The Cantata Misericordium is another rarely performed piece with many an echo of its almost contemporaneous War Requiem. Special effects (e.g. the barking dog) actually enhance the seriousness of the much underrated Children's Crusade, the harrowing Brechtian tale of refugee children in wartime Poland. And none of the more incidental pieces outstay their welcome.