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S & H Recital Review

Britten, Fauré: Nash Ensemble / Brabbins, Joan Rodgers, Wigmore Hall, Saturday December 15th. (M.E.)


Forming part of the Nash Ensemble's distinctive "Les Illuminations" series, this varied concert was typical of the ensemble's style in that it presented a mixture of the very familiar and the less well known, united by playing of equal commitment. The first work was Britten's "Sinfonietta," which was played with extraordinary delicacy and finesse, especially in the set of variations which make up the Andante; the work is scored for wind quintet and string quintet, and the feeling of chamber intimacy which such forces should generate was perfectly achieved.

Joan Rodgers joined the ensemble for Britten's settings of three French Folk songs, perhaps the highlight of the evening. Britten's work in this genre is anything but artless; Peter Pears wrote that the composer ".takes the tune as if he had written it himself and thinks himself back as to how he would turn it into a song." Rodgers and the ensemble performed these pieces with an ideal blend of charm without saccharine and precision without pedantry; her voice is perfect for this music, since it is bell-like in its clarity and intimately small in scale, and her singing of "Il est quelqu'un sur terre" in particular, with its constant reminders of "Gretchen am Spinnrade," was a model of this kind of performance.

The first half of this illuminating programme ended with Fauré's D minor Trio, a work once described as "..serene and strong as Bach, tenderly persuasive as Fauré himself.," and this performance emphasised those virtues, especially in the lyrical Andantino and the sinewy Allegro.

The evening's major work, Britten's "Les Illuminations," was the only part which was not entirely successful, in that Rodgers' voice, lovely though it is, does not seem to me to be at all suited to this music or these words, with their overtones of decadence, languor and world-weariness. Rimbaud's darkly atmospheric, eerie verses, with their "Waste Land" images and occasional eroticism, found their perfect match in Britten's closely nuanced, episodic music, but it seems to me that both poems and music demand a voice with greater variety than this sweet lyric soprano.

It was, of course, a soprano, Sophie Wyss, who premièred the work in 1940, but perhaps one tends to "hear" a voice similar to that of her successor as Britten's vocal inspiration, Peter Pears, in all this music. The tenor voice seems to me ideal for it, and I could not help but compare Rodgers' - admittedly lovely - singing of such lines as "Ton Coeur bat dans ce ventre où dort le double sexe" and "O la face cendrée, l'écusson de crin,les bras de cristal!" with that of Ainsley on the recording with the Britten Sinfonia. Where her phrasing and interpretation were calm and poised, his just catches that sense of erotic strangeness and, where needed, a slight overtone of hysteria - this is music and poetry of a very dense texture and emphasis, and a lovely light soprano does not do it full justice. The playing was exemplary throughout, and directed with clarity and precision by Brabbins, who has a genuine feeling for the shape of Britten's phrases. Another illuminating evening in the company of the Nash Ensemble.

Melanie Eskenazi


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