Les Illuminations, Op.18
Quatre Chansons françaises [edited by Colin Matthews]
A Late Lark [edited by Sir Thomas Beecham and Eric Fenby; prepared for publication by Robert Threlfall]
Dies natalis, Op.8 – Cantata for high voice and string orchestra
Susan Gritton (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 20-22 November 2009 in Studio 1, Maida Vale, London
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: June 2010
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10590
Duration: 68 minutes
The central work on this release is “Les Illuminations”. Dedicated to and first performed by the soprano Sophie Wyss, it has been one of Britten’s most-recorded works. Soprano interpreters who have recorded it include Gomez, Harper, Hendricks and Lott, with Matthews and Piau maintaining the continuity amongst the present generation. Inevitably it has also been commandeered by lyric tenors, notably Ainsley, Bostridge, Spence and Adrian Thompson from the contemporary generation, while the interpretation by Peter Pears is sui generis and can be heard with the composer as conductor. Britten’s settings of Rimbaud sit better in a soprano’s voice. Chandos already has Felicity Lott’s 1988 interpretation of “Les Illuminations” coupled with the “Quatre Chansons françaises”.
The music of “Les Illuminations” comes across as astonishingly inventive for a man of just twenty-five. Britten packs a lot into the two minutes of his first section and under Edward Gardner the whole palette of sound demands attention: the leaping energy of violins and violas stands out in relief from the buzzing of the lower strings, leading to the urgent motto phrase from the singer, with a finely judged subsidence of the energy and the appearance of the solo violin. Britten’s vivid evocation of the noise, movement and menace of an industrial city is graphically conveyed by the strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in ‘Villes’. The range of rhythms and instrumental colours, the lacerating quality of the string attack, the sforzandos at “Les vieux craters” are supported by Susan Gritton’s treatment of the text. If it is impossible for her always to enunciate the poet’s words intelligibly – the jolting jumps above the stave, the whoops in the passage “Les Bacchantes des banlieues sanglotent”, the way she makes the turns in the vocal line of “Des groupes de beffrois” seem like attempts to escape from this inferno – all are faithful to the character of Rimbaud’s hallucinatory poetry. Gritton expresses violence without ever becoming unmusical. In what is emphatically an equal partnership between musicians, the ending, fading like a procession into the distance, is masterfully judged by the conductor.
In immediate contrast, the ecstatic vision of ‘Phrase’ is held in its high tessitura, culminating in an assured high B flat of great purity. In ‘Parade’ Gritton conveys with powerful immediacy the poet’s horror of being assailed by a nightmarish vision of hostile, grotesque figures. She negotiates the scales and chromatic descent with aplomb. In ‘Royauté’ she cultivates the ironic detachment with which the poet views the two characters who incongruously aspire to royal status. The woman’s bombastic desire to be queen is comically enacted and their one afternoon of royal dominion reported with a sardonic chortle. ‘Being Beauteous’ is clearly intended as a love-song for Peter Pears and his supposedly best note, E natural, is displayed insistently in the opening monotone and re-appears in the concluding paragraph. Passages where the singer’s line dissolves into brief dots ranging across tricky intervals are negotiated with impressive musicianship.
Justifiably, the balance in this work slightly favours the orchestra, as it provides so many of the outstanding moments: not just the conspicuous effects from what has been called the strings’ box of tricks (the opening, the noises of the modern city in ‘Les villes’, the weight of the full string body propelled by strong rhythmic force like an imperial march in ‘Royauté’) but also less overt contributions, such as the solo violin which supports the eroticism of ‘Antique’ and the wriggling trills in ‘Being Beauteous’, initially in the violas and later spreading to each instrumental group.
The four French songs are the work of a precocious schoolboy, written as a wedding anniversary present for his parents and a clear indication of their son’s developing compositional gifts and likely career path. They are proclamations of the sonorities his orchestra can produce, the influence of Debussy evident from the start and a Wagnerian ‘Liebestod’ to conclude the fourth song. Gardner does not disguise the jejune, self-conscious element of the instrumental writing. Gritton’s singing takes her part at face-value, ranging from the crisply articulated recitative-like writing of ‘Nuits de juin’ to the sustained ripeness required by the other songs.
Gerald Finzi was more concerned with fidelity to the words of his selected writers than displaying his inventive skills as an orchestrator. The influences on him are from the British Isles: the introduction to “Dies natalis” is reminiscent of Elgar’s string-writing in Serenade for Strings and the only really rhythmically arresting writing for orchestra comes in ‘The Rapture’ (subtitled ‘Danza’). In ‘Wonder’ the melody which wells up in the cellos and is thereafter subconsciously present right through to the end, has an unmistakable Elgarian nobilmente flavour.
Where Britten makes his effects in contrasting short episodes, painted in bright colours, Finzi’s setting of Thomas Traherne’s mystical poetry rests on a continuous flow of sound. This is not without a rewarding variety of musical form to reflect different aspects of the texts, in which the poet imagines himself as a new-born child reacting to his entry into the world with both visceral wonderment and philosophical inquiry. Accompanied recitative is used for the prose text of ‘Rhapsody’, with particular words and phrases highlighted: “… in their splendour and glory” generates a high-lying vocal phrase, standing out against the surrounding texture. “All appeared new” inspires an ecstatic tumbling phrase of recognition. Gritton responds with complete spontaneity to Finzi’s word-painting and creatively shapes the vocal line.
In ‘The Rapture’ she combines sensuous excitement with serious questioning and has the necessary weight and dark colour in the lower part of the voice. She is skilled in following Finzi’s winding legato lines in ‘Wonder’. And where the composer does not spare his singer at the top of her range, Gritton is unfazed by the B flats in ‘The Rapture’ and the consistently high tessitura of ‘Wonder’. Joy and awe give way in the last song ‘The Salutation’ to calm acceptance of the marvel in a movement based on the steady tread of a Bach chorale prelude. There is little doubt that Gritton has studied music and words with sensitivity and unites the two admirably. Coping with all the musical demands does not prevent her from clear articulation of the English text.
Delius’s “A Late Lark” which he completed with the assistance of Eric Fenby, was intended for tenor. So mellow is Gritton’s tone throughout its range that one wonders whether this may have been a miscalculation, here corrected in a performance which is the English composer’s ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ (Richard Strauss) and ‘Abschied’ (Mahler) combined. This is classic Delius. Gardner’s players provide the essential cushion of sound and the pregnant solos, while the recording subtly maintains the vocal soloist in suitable focus as it proceeds with its improvisatory lyricism.
These performances make strong cases for all these works and also provide a fine platform for the many facets of Susan Gritton’s voice.