BRITTEN Les Illuminations.1 Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal2. Prelude and Fugue for Strings. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge • Jean-Marie Zietouni, cond; 1,2Karina Gauvin (sop); 2Louis-Philippe Marsolais (hn); Les Violons du Roy • ATMA ACD2 2601 (59: 31)
Read more style="font-style:italic">“J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (I alone hold the key to this wild parade) is the opening line of Benjamin Britten’s setting of poetry by Rimbaud, Les Illuminations. This performance takes Rimbaud at his word: Gauvin punches out the phrase, and there is savagery in the way the Violons du Roy attack their opening figures. The Quebec-based band consists of 10 violins, four violas, four cellos, and two basses, a smaller number than we are used to hearing in this work—certainly fewer than in Britten’s English Chamber Orchestra or Marriner’s Northern Sinfonia, let alone Ozawa’s Boston Symphony Orchestra—but they make up for their lack of massed string sound with sheer heft and variety of expression. Britten’s early masterpieces have long since outgrown the confines of British ensembles, and in doing so have traded something of the polished surface for added gutsiness; in the case of the “wild parade” of Les Illuminations, it is all gain.
Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin has recorded discs of vocal music by Handel, Purcell, and Vivaldi, and brings the attributes of that repertoire to bear on Britten’s cycle: vocal agility, heightened expression, and a wide tessitura. In the latter area, she has no difficulty encompassing the high B? of “Phrase” and the low G of “Parade”—for once, the latter does not sound like some weird subterranean baritone register from a different singer altogether. Her French timbre is totally apt: This is the ideal voice for the Princess in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges and it works perfectly in Les Illuminations. (To my mind she is less idiosyncratic and easier on the ear than Sandrine Piau, another Baroque specialist who has recorded Britten’s cycle.) Most importantly, Gauvin and her accompanying band bring us a true interpretation, pointing the schizophrenic changes of mood in Rimbaud’s poetry that range from naked aggression to raw vulnerability, all so cleverly captured by the composer.
The remaining instrumental works exhibit the same care over detail. There is a cheeky side to early Britten, and conductor Jean-Marie Zietouni finds it. His tempi tend to be swift, adding to the excitement in the fugal section of the Prelude and Fugue, and the busy fugue of the Frank Bridge Variations. The latter work closes with a romantic statement of the Bridge theme, and here the Violons wear their hearts warmly on their sleeves with a very effective use of portamento.
The final track is a delightful bonus: a song originally intended to be part of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings but removed when Britten felt it adversely affected the balance of the work. (The strings’ rocking motif is a remarkable pre-echo of the later Nocturne.) Gauvin, though no tenor, sings it beautifully.
There is, of course, considerable competition on disc in the main works. Among soprano versions of Les Illuminations, I could mention Felicity Lott, Heather Harper, Sandrine Piau, Jill Gomez, and Sylvia McNair, and there are several others. My favorite, in spite of his unidiomatic French, is a tenor version by the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson, but Gauvin has gone to the top of my soprano list. She must record The Turn of the Screw.
Britten himself conducted a masterly performance of the Bridge Variations, which is more of a big-band version. Competition in that youthful masterpiece includes a rich, lush rendition by the Toulouse Chamber Orchestra conducted by the violist Gerard Caussé, the polar opposite of Zietouni and his razor-sharp chamber group.
It is a little early for Want List candidates, but I’d be surprised if this disc did not figure in my next one when November finally comes around.
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petalby Benjamin Britten Performer:
Karina Gauvin (Soprano)
Les Violons du Roy
Period: 20th Century Written: 1943; England
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Beautiful... and savageFebruary 13, 2013By James Carleton (Port Hueneme, CA)See All My Reviews"I have very little to add to Philip Scott's review for Fanfare, quoted above. I am currently listening to this CD: specifically, the Bridge Variations. I came late to liking this work; now I love it, in no small part to this particular performance. Karina Gauvin does a marvelous job with Les Illuminations, but she really shines in the short "Crimson Petal". This is a superb CD, recorded and engineered about as perfectly as possible. If you enjoy Britten, you will certainly enjoy this disc."Report Abuse