Sound Samples & Downloads
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Les Illuminations, Op. 18 (1939) [21:45]
Prelude and Fugue for 18-part string orchestra, Op. 29 (1943) [9:03]
Variations of a theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 (1937) [25.55]
Now sleeps the crimson petal (1943) [2:46]
Karina Gauvin (soprano)
Louis-Philippe Marsolais (horn); Pascale Giguère (violin)
Les Violons du Roi/Jean-Marie Zeitouni
rec. Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palias Montcalm, Quebec, April 2009
ATMA ACD2 2601 [59:29]
This disc, from the Quebec-based chamber orchestra, Les Violons
du Roi, begins with one of the finest performances of Britten’s
Les Illuminations I have ever heard. Karina Gauvin has just
the right voice for the work, strong and clear, brilliantly
coloured at all times, but with the ability to be scaled down
almost to nothing when the music demands it. And the orchestra
and conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni have clearly looked at the
work afresh. Time and again I was surprised by details of the
score, previously unheard but nonetheless there, marked in with
scrupulous care by the thirty-five year-old composer. Take the
very opening, for instance. The string fanfares are marked to
played “like a trumpet” and “close to the bridge”. The Canadian
players go further in this direction than I have ever heard,
with startling results; and the accented, staccato delivery
of the accompaniment to the second song also indicates that
there are to be no shrinking violets in this particular world.
The third song, “Phrase”, is the clincher. The held string harmonics
are superbly articulated, with the gorgeous vocal line culminating
in an absolutely ravishing high B flat and following downward
glissando. No, there’s only one aspect which disturbs, and though
it is a pity, it’s not a reason to avoid this outstanding performance.
The singer’s ability to sing piano and pianissimo,
and thereby establish some intimacy with the audience, is somewhat
compromised by the recording which, though stunningly clear
– a huge advantage when the orchestral playing is so accomplished
– places her rather too far forward in the overall picture.
The performance of the Variations of a theme of Frank Bridge
is also very fine, if not quite on the same exalted level. Many
of the features previously noted are again present. The principal
characteristic of the playing is brilliance, and this brings
dividends in many of the variations, notably “Aria Italiana”
and “Moto Perpetuo”. The “Bourée Classique” is very brisk, perhaps
even brusque, and the “Wiener Walzer” carries lots of punch.
The high violin line in “Romance” is played with remarkable
purity of tone and intonation. The recording again makes it
difficult for the performers to establish intimacy with the
listener, but in any event I don’t think this is one of their
primary aims. The final movement, a composition of astonishing
virtuosity from so young a composer, is brilliantly played,
but the moment when the music turns back to the theme is too
heavily signalled here, and the following passage wherein the
theme and fugue are presented simultaneously similarly suffers.
In the finest performances, especially the one conducted by
Britten himself, the theme creeps in, almost without our noticing,
underlining the composer’s mastery of form and dramatic sense.
This is an outstandingly fine performance, nonetheless, albeit
with perhaps a little too much emphasis on the brilliant aspects
of the work to the expense of those more withdrawn.
Britten’s Op. 29 has had a bad press. Michael Kennedy holds
the view that the fugue subject is “turgidly worked out”, and
Peter Evans, in his monumental study of the composer’s music
(OUP 1996) finds it “workaday”. I don’t think anyone would claim
it as one of Britten’s greatest works, but it is very enjoyable
and it shouldn’t be written off. Each of the eighteen instruments
is treated as a soloist, and though the fugue subject itself
is not very promising, its working out leads to some exciting
writing, and the return of the opening music is dramatic and
effective. The work receives a fine performance from these Canadian
players. Their high harmonics don’t evoke the same atmosphere
of mystery the composer himself did in 1971, but again, the
very close recording with little reverberation nor very much
sense of space around the sound doesn’t help. I urge readers
to give the work a try, though.
The disc ends with the short Tennyson setting, first performed
in 1987, but originally written as part of the Serenade, Op
31 and removed by the composer before that work’s premiere.
It’s a most beautiful piece, and intriguing too, in that its
rocking string accompaniment, slightly transformed, supports
the vocal line in the opening song of the Nocturne of 1958.
Louis-Philippe Marsolais plays beautifully, but with so little
time to create his own musical identity, it is once again the
gorgeous singing of Miss Gauvin that lingers in the mind. It
makes a lovely, touching envoi for this excellent disc.