Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Les Illuminations (1939) [23:19]
Hans Werner HENZE (b. 1926)
Being Beauteous (1963) [14:45]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Herzgewächse, Op. 20 (1911) [3:03]
Niccolò CASTIGLIONI (1932-1996)
Terzina (1992) [5:16]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Slopiewnie, Op. 46b (1921) [10:58]
Anu Komsi (soprano)
Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Juha Kangas (Britten)
Uusinta Chamber Ensemble/Sakari Oramo (the rest)
rec. 27-28 May 2011, Sello Hall, Espoo, Finland (Britten) and 28-30 October 2010, Snellman Hall, Kokkola, Finland (the rest)
Sung texts and English translations provided
ALBA ABCD331 [58:15]
Hot on the heels of Anne-Catherine Gillet’s performance of Les Illuminations (review) comes another, quite different one from the Finnish coloratura soprano Anu Komsi. My suspicion that Britten wasn’t totally in sympathy with Rimbaud’s poetry is unsupported by documentary evidence, but in my own case there is no doubt: Rimbaud prevents me from fully appreciating the work. This performance has come as close as any to convincing me, however. The opening is crucial. The title is “Fanfare”; that is just what the strings should deliver, and my goodness, they certainly do. Anu Komsi’s is a big voice, easily capable of reaching the farthest corners of those opera houses that are her regular venues, and she uses it to dramatic effect in the “motto” at the end of “Fanfare”. Then follows “Villes”, very fast and aggressively dramatic. The performers are scrupulous about observing fortissimo markings; it sometimes makes for unpleasant listening, and in spite of the remarkably successful opening I was getting ready to dislike this performance. How wrong one can be! In the following “Phrase” Anu Komsi tones down her voice to exquisite effect, and ends with a stunningly ppp high B flat, followed by the slowest, most brilliantly controlled downward glissando you can imagine. Her singing of “Antique” is most persuasive, and the two short, faster songs that follow are brilliantly done. She has a very individual way with some phrases, and I rather think that Britten, who was notoriously fussy about how he felt his music should go, would have been resistant to this. The song that gives the disc its title is taken very slowly indeed, adding a full minute to Britten’s own timing, with Peter Pears, of four minutes. But it is very convincing, and the final song is most movingly sung. In short, this is a magnificent performance, but perhaps a challenging one for those who already know how they want the music to go.
Britten’s setting of “Being Beauteous” runs for no more than five minutes, whereas Hans Werner Henze manages to spin it out for nearly a quarter of an hour. The work is scored for soprano, four cellos and harp, so performances are surely rare. It’s a pity, as there are many ravishing sounds in it, and the vocal writing, vertiginously high at times, is masterly. If any listener still harbours doubts about Anu Komsi’s ability to put her voice at the service of the music, they will be stilled by this performance. Her pianissimo singing is exquisite, her assumption of the solo part at once technically assured and deeply seductive. A rival performance on DG is conducted by the composer. The work is treated more dramatically than here, but Edda Moser, though deeply convincing, cannot rival Anu Komsi in sheer beauty of tone.
Schoenberg’s name on a CD cover is still enough to discourage many people, but in this case it shouldn’t, as the work, only three minutes in duration, is a fascinating one. New to me, and hardly ever performed, this short work reveals the composer’s ear for beauty – yes, beauty! – as well as his undeniably vivid response to Maurice Maeterlinck’s virtually untranslatable (incomprehensible?) poem. The performance is remarkable, the singer demonstrating formidable vocal control in registers higher than many sopranos would be able to sing at all.
The translation-heavy notes by the singer herself don’t cast much light on Castiglioni’s Terzina. This short setting of an eighteenth-century mystic/sacred text is accompanied by an eight-piece instrumental ensemble that includes some percussion. The music is so slow as to be almost static, very spare, the language advanced yet accessible, putting this listener in mind of Webern.
This is all very fine indeed, and would already constitute a most satisfying, if short, CD. The best is yet to come, however, for the Szymanowski – the title translates as The Cherry Trees – is a minor masterpiece. In this cycle of five short songs for soprano and chamber ensemble the composer evokes in turn, with extraordinary economy and uncanny vividness, a nightingale singing on a hot spring night; a foal skipping by a spring; a choir of angels singing in praise of Saint Francis; the redness of sorcery, love and death; and, to close, the waters of the Vistula washing through the hair of a drowned princess. This is music of the utmost sensuousness, deeply affected by folk traditions yet clearly of the twentieth century. The vocal writing is challenging, but this remarkable singer takes everything in her stride. (Beware two blood-curdling exclamations!) It is impossible to imagine this deeply impressive short work better done.
The Britten is accompanied by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, whose playing is just as brilliant as it was on their outstanding disc, Fiddler’s Spring, also on Alba, that I reviewed recently. The instrumental accompaniment to the other works is no less masterly.
Superbly recorded, this is an unusual programme that will bring enormous pleasure and satisfaction.
Britten’s youthful cycle in an unusual programme, magnificently performed and recorded.