London, for Arthur
Rimbaud, was a liberation. After the
bourgeois confines of Charleville, it
seemed an exhilarating adventure into
the future, a world where possibilities
were infinite. He was inspired by the
thrill of modernity, by technology,
by social change. Les Illuminations
was written when Rimbaud was barely
nineteen. It is a young man's vision
of new frontiers. So it was, too, for
Britten when he set it. It is a seminal
work, for Britten was conclusively proving
his own, individual voice through what
Auden was to call "mediterraneanising"
- breaking away from the conventional
view of a "British" composer.
This recording is excellently
chosen. It gives Les Illuminations
in context with Britten's Quatre
Chansons françaises, written
when he was barely fourteen. Even at
this early age, Britten indicated what
was to come. He had been separated from
his adored mother and sent to boarding
school, but he was well aware that he
would find his métier in composition.
Already, the theme of lost childhood,
which he would repeatedly explore, features.
In L'Enfance, perhaps the strongest
song in the set, the innocent child's
song, with its folksy, almost clumsy,
rhythm contrasts with the more sophisticated
strings and winds that evoke the mother's
death. "Le douleur est un fruit",
wrote Victor Hugo, " Dieu ne
le fait pas croître sur la branche
trop faible encore pour le porter."
("Pain is a fruit: God doesn't
let it grow on a branch too weak to
bear it"). Prophetic words, perhaps,
for Britten himself. Les Illuminations
is presented with another Britten
masterpiece, the Serenade for Tenor,
Horn and Strings. Five years after
Les Illuminations Britten has
returned to English poetry and to the
historic, but the themes of lost innocence
are even more adroitly explored. The
immortal lines of William Blake resound:
"Oh Rose, thou art sick".
This recording also
gives insights into Britten's use of
poetry. The early songs are two poems
each of Hugo and Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud's
partner in scandal in London. Britten
already has an ear for the French idiom.
Rimbaud's poetry is revolutionary, with
its idiosyncratic rhythms and opaque
imagery. If it was set to any extent
before Britten, I do not know, for it
really only reached a mass audience
in the early twentieth century. Britten
seems to have appreciated that its complex,
inexplicit meanings could be expressed
in music. So well integrated is his
music with his choice of poems that
it is startling how avant-garde the
work still sounds. Five years later,
Britten returns to the classic English
poets, Blake, Keats, Jonson and Tennyson,
but his settings in the Serenade
are utterly unique, transcending
the medium of poetry alone.
was premiered by Sophie Wyss in
1939, but, as with much of Britten's
work, has been colonised since by tenors.
Here, it is a joy to hear Felicity Lott
singing a soprano version. Her voice
is in the full bloom of youth, and she
sings with a thrilling freshness and
verve, entirely in keeping with the
mood of excitement. There are many delicious
moments – how wittily she confides "Des
solides" in Parade, and
explodes with an ecstatic "J'ai
seul la clef de cette parade sauvage
!" echoing the sole phrase
in the opening fanfare, but with a completely
different tone. When the same phrase
appears again, in Interlude,
she sings it in yet another way, echoing
the instrumental colouring around it.
Her voice breezes "fleet of foot"
so to speak, through the fast phrases
of Villes without missing a nuance.
Also, the tricky Marine, with
its single word emphases, and final,
swirling "tourillons, tourillons".
This is virtuoso singing, as the
musical line in the text isn't obvious
and is often prose based, and the music
shifts emphasis just as quirkily. Felicity
Lott's reputation as one of the great
singers of French song is well deserved.
She remains idiomatic, with clear, pure
diction, even in passages which test
the flexibility of voice. In Royauté,
she conveys the up-front pertness
that has served her so well in Poulenc.
This is gorgeous singing, well supported
by tightly focused orchestral playing
from the Scottish National under Bryden
Unlike Les Illuminations,
the Serenade has always been
tenor territory. Some of the finest
tenors have performed it, for it challenges
both voice and musicality. Even German
language specialists like Peter Schreier
and Ernst Haefliger have essayed it.
Here, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, the great
English tenor of his time, gives his
version, note perfect and beautiful.
It is very good, but after the exceptionally
vivacious singing of Felicity Lott,
I long for more impassioned versions,
such as John Mark Ainsley's, or, the
even more original, other worldly versions
by Ian Bostridge, probably the finest
Britten interpreter since Pears. On
its own terms, however, there are many
felicities in Rolfe Johnson's voice
to enjoy. Notice how subtly he phrases
the different moods within Nocturne,
for example, and brings out the changes
of texture in the poem. If the other
levels of meaning, such as death and
the supernatural, don't feature much
here, it remains a lovely evocation
of night and sleep. The horn solo, by
Michael Thompson, is good, though not
specially inspiring. Dennis Brain and
Marie Louise Neunecker on other recordings
demonstrate just how haunting and expressive
the horn part can be, and how integral
it is to the spirit of the piece.
Altogether, a welcome
reissue of a classic from the archives
: Felicity Lott's Illuminations
alone is a must.