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.

William Hedley

A very fine Britten collection, brilliantly played and beautifully sung.