Les Illuminations, Op.18
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31
Lawrence Power (viola)
Sandrine Piau (soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Richard Watkins (horn)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 4 December, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Britten’s original version of Lachrymae, with piano accompaniment, is expressive enough, but the scoring he made for strings in 1976, the year he died, seems less a re-working than a 3D realisation, with the violist’s relationship to the strings a highly-charged affair. Lawrence Power identified completely with the muted melancholy that percolates through John Dowland’s song and Britten’s sequence of variations, offering bipolar flashes of ecstasy relieving the prevailing darkness. The ending, when Dowland’s original emerges in its original harmonies, had the extraordinary effect of gathering to itself Britten’s homage that went beyond valedictory, played by Power with rare numinous eloquence.
There was a similar intensity to the opening of Les Illuminations, with the fifteen-strong Nash Ensemble delivering a wonderfully controlled and articulated spread of sound, which the French soprano Sandrine Piau extended in a performance of thrilling attack and polish, the sort of performance that leaves you gasping at Britten’s prodigious originality and freshness. An artist who has made her name in Baroque repertoire, Piau brought a directness and clarity to Rimbaud’s rampant parade of the erotic and exotic, performing the cycle with a complete absence of affectation.
After the virtuosic demands of the first song, she conjured out of the second, ‘Phrase’, a top B flat (on “et je danse”) and subsequent glissando of such ethereal carnality I thought I’d faint it was so ravishing – as were the beautifully played string harmonics. With the easiest of adjustments, Piau was right inside the character of each setting, expanding them with her lightly-worn musicianship, and taking us to the heart of the work – the ‘Interlude’ where Britten’s and Rimbaud’s geniuses feed on each other in almost indecent potency – with a brief reminder of the bell-like purity at the centre of her voice. It was like hearing Les Illuminations for the first time.
I’m still in counselling after John Mark Ainsley’s eviscerating Vere in Billy Budd, and there was no let-up in his demonic, eloquent and supremely energised performance in Serenade, its impact compounded and liberated by his singing without a score. His voice seemed to slide in from nowhere in the supple, perfectly pitched opening line of the ‘Pastoral’, and the portamento that shade the romantic fanfares of ‘Nocturne’ gave us singing of amazing refinement and ease. Richard Watkins’s horn-playing, superb throughout, was miraculous in the second verse’s remote echoes, complemented by the withdrawn quality of Ainsley’s singing. ‘Dirge’ was like the nightmare of being chased, when you know you can’t outrun your pursuer. Martyn Brabbins’s steady but assertive tempo dovetailed neatly with the terrorised dialogue Ainsley conjured from the text, and the climax was deliriously abandoned. That’s the thing about John Mark Ainsley – he makes every detail, every shading, every change of vocal register count with a natural-born dramatic sense, and the result here was both poetic (the concluding Keats ‘Sonnet’ was magnificent) and savage.
It’s not so long ago that there was a protective halo of deferential self-consciousness surrounding performances of Britten’s music. These four great soloists showed how far things have moved on, to Britten’s and our great advantage.