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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Les Illuminations, Op 18
Quatre Chansons françaises,
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op 31.
Felicity Lott (soprano), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Michael Thomas (horn)
Scottish National Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
Rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 8-9 August 1988. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10192 X [58.55"]


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.

Les Illuminations 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 drôles trés 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 Thomson.

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.

SAnne Ozorio




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