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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Quatre Chansons Françaises, op.posth. (1928)* [12:08]
Our Hunting Fathers, op.8 (1936) [28:07]
Les Illuminations, op.18 (1939)* [22:21]
* Felicity Lott (soprano), Phyllis Bryn-Julson (soprano)
English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
Recorded at Abbey Rd. Studios, London, UK in June/July 1990 (Our Hunting Fathers), and at Henry Wood Hall, London UK in July 1994 (other items)
NAXOS 8.557206 [62:38]

A fascinating issue of early Britten this, featuring recordings originally issued on Collins Classics in the early 1990s. The Quatre Chansons Françaises are particularly interesting, being composed when he was in his mid-teens. The innocent ear would probably have great difficulty in identifying the composer – not surprising in juvenilia such as this – but what is unmistakable, and significant, is the strong continental accent of the music. Debussy, Alban Berg and even Wagner are all present in the background, though there is sometimes an uncomfortable angularity in the vocal writing which is not present in the mature Britten. Felicity Lott is at her absolute best in these, and in the whole-hearted performance of Les Illuminations that closes the disc. Her voice sounds at its most ravishing, and she abandons herself to the music, delivering a performance of a sensual beauty that neither Ian Bostridge nor Pears himself could equal. What is so remarkable about Lott’s vocal prowess is the incredible richness of tone in her upper register – no hint of shrillness, or of constriction; it really is something special, and makes her reading of a song such as Being Beauteous, for example – the eighth of Les Illuminations – quite an outstanding experience, especially as she finds such variations in vocal colour to reflect the moods of the poetry and music. This is great singing.

Our Hunting Fathers, which reflects Britten’s hatred of blood-sports (the texts were anthologised, and the Epilogue written, by W.H.Auden) is an equally fine though far less well-known cycle, and shows the young composer (23 at the time of the premiere) responding with powerful imagination to the tensions of 1930s Europe. Hawking for the Partridge, a setting of a 17th century poem, is the most memorable, in which the savage hunting of the birds of prey seems to be transformed into an aerial dog-fight. Though Phyllis Bryn-Julson’s voice may not have the sumptuousness of Lott’s, she turns in a brilliant performance of this and the whole cycle, and misses nothing in terms of emotional intensity. Her repeated cries of ‘Fie’ in Melissa are truly heart-rending, and the way the young composer allows these to dissolve into the soft instrumental colours is magically telling – ample foretaste of the riches that were to come.

Steuart Bedford has always had a particularly acute feeling for the style and sound-world of Britten’s music, and he proves an ideal accompanist. The characteristic string writing in the Fanfare opening of Les Illuminations is perfectly realised, as is the violence of Rats Away and Hawking for the Partridge in Our Hunting Fathers.

In performances as utterly assured and idiomatic as these, the old question of Male Voice v. Female Voice just doesn’t arise – for me at any rate. These versions are quite fit to take their place alongside the finest available, and all is captured in vivid recordings of the highest standard. It’s great to welcome them back into the catalogue.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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