BRITTEN: Les Illuminations, Op. 18 for soprano and string orchestra; Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge; Serenade Op. 31 for tenor, horn and string orchestra; Now sleeps the Crimson Petal for tenor, horn and string orchestra – Barbara Hannigan, soprano/ James Gilchrist, tenor/ Jasper de Waal, horn/ Amsterdam Sinfonietta/ Candida Thompson – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 32213, 79:15 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
We can look forward to many new recordings of the English master Benjamin Britten, as 2013 is the centennial of his birth. Hearing soprano Barbara Hannigan sing Illuminations was a surprise, after being raised on Peter Pears’ version with the composer conducting in the 1960 Decca recording. But, Britten did write it for a soprano. Hannigan’s higher registers soar above the strings, offering an ethereal presence that suits some of Rimbaud’s rapturous poetry, but Thompson’s performance doesn’t quite have the dramatic bite of Britten’s. The strings’ diminished vibrato amplifies Hannigan’s emotive force. It’s a different conception that is more sensual.
Britten’s homage to his teacher Frank Bridge, the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge (1937), was one of the works that made him a significant English composer. Each of the variations, based on a theme from Bridge’s 3 Idylls for String Quartet, describe an aspect of Bridge’s personality and parody different musical styles – neo-classical romanticism, Italian arias, Viennese waltzes, and a Mahlerian funeral march. Penned in a space of a mere three weeks, it uses a catalog of string devices that established Britten’s compositional brilliance. The depth of the recording illuminates Britten’s writing and Thompson fully expresses the drama, pathos and fun of this masterpiece.
Britten wasn’t the only one that was transfixed by the tone of the English horn player Dennis Brain. After hearing him at an RAF Orchestra concert in 1943, he wrote the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings for Brain and tenor Peter Pears, his lifelong companion. Together with a solo horn prologue and epilogue, there are six different moods that describe the night – night as rest from day, night as a source of light, night as source of the macabre (the worm eating away at the heart of a rose), night as a dirge (burial song), night as the leveler (we all die), night as hymn to Diana, goddess of the moon, who brings hope and sweet sleep, a savior from pain and grief (Sonnet).
Thompson’s slower tempos impart a greater emotional presence, especially in the Elegy and Dirge sections. Tenor James Gilchrist sings with dignity in the Pastoral; invests the Nocturne with beauty, the Elegy and Dirge with impending doom, and imbues the Sonnet with a hushed acceptance of sleep. Jasper de Waal mirrors the work’s moods with sensitive horn playing. The sensuously gorgeous Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal was originally omitted from Britten’s first version, and first performed in 1987.
The fine SACD sound on this disc adds a sensuality and tangibility that allows the listener to get inside the music, as if he/she were present when it was recorded. There’s a palpability to the silences that magnifies the music’s emotional presence. This is thoughtful and lovely music, ravishingly performed and recorded. Don’t miss it!