This is a dream of a programme, and the performances by Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet are enchanting.
When the American journalist and writer James Agee died prematurely in 1955, his magnificent autobiographical novel A Death in the Family
was complete but still in an early draft. It was published in this form and is a most moving work. Also amongst his papers was found a passage of prose entitled “Knoxville: Summer 1915”, and Agee’s first editor decided to place this at the head of the book as a kind of prologue. It’s a magical evocation of a summer’s evening seen through the eyes of a child, Agee himself. Samuel Barber selected passages from this piece, resulting in a short vocal work that falls into three main sections.
In an interview in the booklet, Anne-Marie Gillet expresses surprise at those who refer to her voice as “bright”. Bright it is, though, but there is richness there too, and power enough to explain her success in the opera house. Her tuning is spot-on, and her stratospheric region – quite frequently explored in this work – sublime. Only very occasionally is she betrayed by her English pronunciation. Since a child is meant to be speaking, the very opulence of the voice might be thought inappropriate, but Barber understood that it was Agee’s adult voice that was recalling this nostalgic scene, and his music reflects this. At a fairly deliberate main tempo, Gillet evokes the evening in the garden with the family, doing not much of anything, hardly even talking. The scene is calm, hot and perfumed. The animated middle section, with its noise of streetcars, is particularly dramatic in this performance. Then comes the heart of the work, in which the different members of the family are presented, describing them in simple, childlike detail. The line “one is my mother who is good to me” – this never fails to bring a flutter to my foolish old heart, not to mention a tear to my foolish old eye – is delivered here with just the rapture that the composer surely intended. There are some surprises, such as the final phrase, “but will not ever tell me who I am”, usually sung wistfully, is delivered here full voice, with a dramatic little crescendo added on the final note. It’s not the only way to do it, but it convinces. I now find it difficult to imagine this adorable, short masterpiece better done.
is a probably a masterpiece too. At the very least, the brilliance and precocity of the writing from such a young man cannot be denied. Even so, I have never quite been able to “get” this work, no doubt in part because I’ve never quite “got” Rimbaud’s poetry, and a still, small voice whispers in my ear that maybe Britten didn’t either. To put it more seriously, I think that, almost uniquely in his career, he didn’t get to the heart of the texts he was setting. In “Being Beauteous”, for example, one appreciates the translation into music of the languid sensuality of the words, but it doesn’t feel like the whole story. The performance, however, is magnificent. The opening fanfares have sounded tauter in other performances, not least in the classic from Peter Pears conducted by the composer. But the soprano’s very first phrase confirms that here is a singer able to invest almost every note, every word, with character. Her downward glissando from the high B flat in “Phrase” is as ravishing as I have ever heard it, and the following “Antique” opens with a most attractive smile and continues with almost uncanny narrative skill. I think the tempo for “Royauté” is too fast both for the music and for the words, not really “majestic” as the score demands. I also find that the silences between these short songs is too long. But the coloratura in the following “Marine” is brilliant, and the singer’s control of line makes for a closing “Départ” – for me the most sincere and most successful song of the whole set – convincing and very touching.
If I have doubts about Britten’s way with Rimbaud, I believe that Les Nuits d’été
is a near-perfect marriage of words and music. Régine Crespin and Janet Baker are hors de combat in this repertoire, but in recent years I have come to admire, even to prefer, the performance by Véronique Gens with the Lyons Opera Orchestra conducted by Louis Langrée, recorded by Virgin in 2000. She has more of the mezzo in her voice than does Gillet, and that without sacrificing anything in the way of brilliance up top. She has rather more variety of tone colour overall, too, using it to tease just a little more meaning out of the words. So this new version doesn’t quite topple my favourite reading, but it comes very close, because once again the Belgian soprano sings with such ardent and open-hearted sincerity that the listener is won over. She is eager and impulsive in the first and last songs, and the tragic songs of mourning are powerfully expressed. The Liège orchestra’s playing is first class throughout, and Paul Daniel accompanies his singer most sensitively, whilst, in the Berlioz particularly, bringing out felicities of scoring that are not always heard with such clarity.
The disc is beautifully recorded. Just occasionally, in quiet passages, the voice might cover some orchestral detail, but this is a marginal problem. The singer presents the programme in the interesting booklet interview previously mentioned, and information on the performers, plus all the texts, are included too, in French and English. Not to be missed!